Wissot: Still waiting for justice, 101 years later | VailDaily.com
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Wissot: Still waiting for justice, 101 years later

Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107, Viola Fletcher, 107, Hughes Van Ellis, 101, don’t have time on their side. They are the three living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the worst act of racial genocide committed by whites against Blacks in this country’s history.

The centenarians are seeking reparations from the city of Tulsa for the obliteration of the most prosperous black community in the country at that time. On May 31, 1921, a mob of white Tulsans undeterred by the city’s police force reduced to rubble Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, commonly called Black Wall Street. In a matter of 12 hours, the mob managed to incinerate 1,256 homes and businesses across a 35-mile radius. The death toll was estimated at more than 300. The exact number is unknown because the search for unearthing the remains of victims continues today.

For 80 years, Tulsa’s newspapers never mentioned the rampage for fear of damaging the city’s reputation as the oil capital of the world. Finally, in 2001 a city-commissioned report revealed the magnitude of the massacre and the role elected officials and police played in failing to prevent the violence from escalating.



The impetus for the decimation of Greenwood was an alleged assault by a young Black man against a young white woman in an elevator in a deserted office building. The details of what actually happened remain murky to this day. Depending on whose testimony you accept as true, 16-year-old Dick Rowland either accidentally brushed up against the body of 15-year-old elevator operator Sarah Page, or assaulted her in what amounted to a sexually provoked attack.

Whatever may have transpired, Rowland was arrested on May 31, the day after the incident. That same day the Tulsa Tribune headlined a small news item on the front page with the words, “Nab Negro For Attacking Girl In An Elevator.” By nightfall a crowd of white men gathered outside the county courthouse where Rowland was being held for his own safety and demanded the authorities turn him over to them.



A group of Greenwood Black men, fearing that Rowland would be lynched if the mob got their hands on him, appeared at the courthouse armed and determined to stop them. In an ensuing melee between the two groups a gun was discharged and “All hell broke loose.”

The residents of Greenwood were left homeless and never compensated by insurance companies for property losses. Tulsa’s civic leaders determined that the cause of the massacre was a “Negro Uprising” which relieved the insurance companies of property liability. Tulsa’s mayor said at the time said, “Let the blame for this negro uprising lie right where it belongs — on those armed negroes who started this trouble.” To T.D. Evans, blacks were solely responsible for their homes and businesses being burned to the ground.

This past Tuesday, May 31, marked the 101st anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, and we are still waiting for justice to prevail. If it wasn’t bad enough that a prosperous Black community was leveled to the ground and then denied compensation for the destruction, there is also the fact that not one white person was ever arrested for the targeted annihilation of a racial community. Genocide is genocide, whether it is committed in Ukraine or Tulsa.

Last year on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, the Greenwood Rising museum opened on the corners of Archer and Greenwood Avenues, the heart of what was once Black Wall Street. The museum bears witness to the horror of racial violence in graphic detail.

The Greenwood neighborhood is now part of the city’s larger Arts District. I visited Greenwood Rising in April. Two blocks from it are the Woody Guthrie museum and the recently opened Bob Dylan museum. A few Black-owned businesses are located on Archer Avenue. The more numerous upscale restaurants, rooftop bars and cool condos on Greenwood Avenue are all white-owned.

It would be appropriate now if the three living survivors to an event which will forever live in infamy receive reparations for the damage done to their community. At last year’s centennial commemoration, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum admitted, “Tulsa’s city government failed to protect Black Tulsans from murder and arson on the night of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.” He, remorsefully added, “I’m incredibly sorry for what happened.”

The mayor, however, is on record as opposed to tax-payer funded reparations. Instead, he would like to see city-owned land that was once part of Greenwood be made available for more commercial development.

That’s mighty generous of him. He’s going to give Greenwood’s remaining residents the opportunity to buy from the city the land that their ancestors lost to mob violence. It’s the equivalent of a pickpocket offering the victims of his thefts the chance to buy back the wallets he stole from them.

It’s not about three centenarians needing reparations money for themselves. Two weeks ago, “a New York philanthropist gifted them $1 million hoping it begins to account for the wrongs they have faced.”

It’s about the city of Tulsa offering a long overdue mea culpa in the form of a financial settlement to the descendants of a Black community that was brutally robbed of its history, property and prosperity by a marauding white mob.

Anything less would prolong a terrible miscarriage of justice.


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