‘I hear the screams’: Tulsa race massacre remembered

Survivors of 1921 white mob massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and their descendants demand reparations and recognition.

More than 1,200 homes as well as Black-owned businesses, churches and other buildings were burned during the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 [File: GHI/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

Viola Fletcher can still hear the screams.

She was seven years old when white mobs stormed the streets of Greenwood, a thriving Black community in the US city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31, 1921, killing scores of people, burning homes and businesses, and forcing Black families to run for their lives.

“I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street, I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams,” said Fletcher, one of the last three known survivors of what is known as the Tulsa race massacre.

“I have lived through the massacre every day,” the 107 year old told a United States congressional subcommittee earlier this month. “Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not, and other survivors do not – and our descendants do not.”

As Tulsa marks the 100-year anniversary of the attacks on Monday – and as a reckoning with the US’s long history of anti-Black racism, slavery and state violence continues nationwide – Tulsa massacre survivors and their descendants are still demanding recognition and reparations.

“I think about the terror and horror inflicted upon Black people in this country every day,” Fletcher said. “I’m asking that my country acknowledge what has happened to me – the traumas and the pain and the loss.”

Viola Fletcher testified before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee on May 19 [Jim Watson/AFP]

The massacre

An Oklahoma commission released a report (PDF) in 2001 detailing the deadly violence that engulfed the Greenwood neighbourhood beginning on May 31, 1921 – as well as the racism that led to the hours-long assault on the area, which was also known as “Black Wall Street”.

Scores of people were killed in the violence – estimates vary, but some say the death toll was as high as 300 people, most of whom were Black – and more than 1,200 homes were deliberately burned and destroyed. Black businesses, including hotels, newspapers, cafes, grocery stores, churches, and even a hospital, were torched.

The attacks began hours after a Black teenager was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old white girl. The 2001 report said it was most likely that Dick Rowland fell getting into the elevator where Sarah Page worked as an operator, and stepped on her foot, prompting her to scream. Someone nearby then alerted police to a supposed assault.

The Tulsa Tribune, a local newspaper, ran a story with the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”. Hours later, a white mob had formed outside the city courthouse, calling for a lynching. A shot rang out and the riot had begun; gun-toting white people patrolled the city’s streets, killing Black Tulsans and burning shops and homes.

Photo shows the aftermath at the east corner of Greenwood Avenue and East Archer Street, in June 1921 [File: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images]

Jovan Scott Lewis, an associate professor of geography at UC-Berkeley, told Al Jazeera that during this period across the US, white mob violence in many cases was spurred by what is now an “almost cliched trope … where there is a claim of injury or harm or sexual assault against a white woman by an African-American man”.

“In that era, post-WWI, there was certainly a heightened sense of racial tension in the United States. What we saw was also just a heightened sense of just generalised violence, organised violence … It was mob violence, and the Greenwood district suffered greatly for it,” he said.

Police did not stop the attacks in Tulsa, and some officers are believed to have joined the white mob. Police also swore in nearly 500 white men and boys as “special deputies”, the 2001 report found. “According to Laurel G Buck, a white bricklayer who was sworn in, the police instructed the new recruits to ‘Get a gun and get a n****r,'” it said.

Many Black Tulsans fought back, but they were outnumbered and unable to stop the violence. While some Black residents fled to the countryside, police and National Guard troops rounded up and detained many others, the report found. At about 11:30am on June 1, martial law was declared. Burials were ordered, with bodies dumped in unmarked graves.

“The history has been actively silenced” for so many years, Scott Lewis said, which is part of what makes the Tulsa race massacre centenary so important. The massacre “marks a significant example of the scale of the violence meted out against Black communities”, he said, adding that what Greenwood truly represents is “the fact that Black people have been very capable in the US – in spite of racism, in spite of segregation – to, on their own terms, develop healthy communities”.

“That’s what Greenwood was: it was a healthy Black community”.

Billowing smoke is seen during the race massacre [File: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

‘Now is the time’

One hundred years later, longstanding calls for recognition of the massacre and concrete reparations for the victims and survivors, and their descendants, are once again growing louder. Rights advocates have also denounced a commission tasked with organising centennial events in Tulsa, saying the body did not seek the input of survivors or their descendants in its plans.

The city and the state have a responsibility “to right the wrong and repair the damage done”, said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US programme at Human Rights Watch. “They need to take some action, but the action they’re taking is not action that incorporates the views or recommendations or input from the survivors.”

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission says on its website that its mission is to educate people about the massacre and its impact, remember the victims and survivors, and “create an environment conducive to fostering sustainable entrepreneurship and heritage tourism” in Greenwood and North Tulsa through events and other activities to mark the 100-year anniversary.

Its efforts, which include the creation of a history centre on the massacre and its aftermath, come amid ongoing excavation work being carried out in Tulsa. In October last year, at least 12 coffins were found in a mass grave in a local cemetery; researchers said they were working to determine whether they were associated with the events of 1921.

Workers reinforce the sides of an excavation site
Workers reinforce the sides of an excavation site during an excavation of a potential unmarked mass grave from the Tulsa race massacre, at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa in July 2020 [Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo]

The city has budgeted to continue the exhumation process, with the next round of searches set to begin in June. “The only way to move forward in our work to bring about reconciliation in Tulsa is by seeking the truth honestly,” Tulsa Mayor G T Bynum says on the city website.

But survivors and their descendants have questioned how the Greenwood Rising historical centre will benefit them, and Black Tulsans have also said the revitalisation of the Greenwood district has so far largely benefitted white business owners, not their community. The commission did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the criticism before publication.

The last survivors and some descendants also sued the City of Tulsa and other authorities for depriving them of economic opportunities and access to adequate housing and healthcare, among other things, following the massacre. They accused the city of “appropriating the trauma and terror suffered by the survivors and descendants of the Tulsa massacre for their economic benefit”.

“The survivors and many descendants that I’ve spoken to are feeling disregarded, ignored and disappointed and frustrated,” HRW’s Pitter told Al Jazeera, adding that reparations can take many forms, from direct payments for survivors to the provision of land and healthcare.

“Yes it happened 100 years ago, but the failure to do anything for 100 years has compounded the harm and made things worse. That’s what they need to reckon with, yet … the city or state is still not offering real repair for even the survivors who are still alive,” she said.

“After the centennial is over, the money is going to dry up and the light is going to fade, and there’s a real danger that – [or] certainly less likelihood that – something will be done. If there was ever a time for Tulsa, Oklahoma to do something, now is the time to do it.”

Many Black Tulsans were detained during the deadly race massacre, while others fled the violence to the countryside [Corbis via Getty Images]
Source: Al Jazeera