A 107-year-old woman who survived the Tulsa Race Massacre said she doesn't want to 'leave this earth without justice'

A 107-year-old woman who survived the Tulsa Race Massacre said she doesn't want to 'leave this earth without justice'
·4 min read
viola fletcher
Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, testifies before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on "Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre" on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on May 19, 2021. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images
  • Three living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre testified in front of a House Judiciary subcommittee Wednesday.

  • Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle told lawmakers about the impacted the massacre had on their lives.

  • A white mob burned down their thriving Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Viola Fletcher was seven years old when a white mob destroyed her home city in Tulsa, Oklahoma 100 years ago.

Fletcher, 107, one of the few living survivors from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, spoke in front of a House Judiciary subcommittee, calling for justice as she shared her first-hand experience of the painful assault on what had been on "Black Wall Street."

"I'm here seeking justice and asking my country to acknowledge what happened," Fletcher said during the "Continuing injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre" hearing.

Read more: The "concerted effort" to cover up the Tulsa Race Massacre

Before May 31, 1921, Greenwood in Tulsa, a district in Tulsa, was a prosperous neighborhood that "represented all the best of what was possible for Black people in America," Fletcher said.

"Greenwood was an incredibly vibrant and energetic place," Scott Ellsworth, historian and author of The Ground Breaking, a historical investigation into the Tulsa massacre, told Insider. "There were 35 restaurants. There was an equal number of grocery stores and meat markets. There were a dozen churches ... There were two African-American schools, a black public library branch, and an African-American hospital."

Black professionals living in Greenwood thrived.

The Tulsa Race Massacre started with the case of a Black teen who had been accused of attacking a white woman. When a lynch mob and a group of armed Black World War I veterans clashed outside of a courthouse where the teen was held, the attack on Greenwood began.

"I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home," Fletcher said. The night of the massacre, her family knew they had to leave Greenwood, she added.

For hours, between May 31 and June 1, white residents destroyed Greenwood as they looted businesses, fired at Black families, and set the neighborhood ablaze, according to a report by the Oklahoma Commission from 2001. An estimated 300 people were killed and thousands were displaced, according to experts.

"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," Fletcher told the House committee.

In her testimony, another survivor, 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield, likened the massacre to a war.

"My community was beautiful. It was filled with happy and successful Black people. Then everything changed," she said. "It was like a war. White men with guns came and destroyed my community. We couldn't understand why."

"I have lived through the massacre every day," said Fletcher, who was joined by her 100-year-old brother Hughes Van Ellis, another survivor. "Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not. And other survivors do not. And our descendants do not," she continued.

The massacre pushed Fletcher's family out of their home in Greenwood, she told lawmakers that "she lost her chance at an education," adding that she "never finished school passed the fourth grade."

Last year, survivors and descendants of the massacre filed a lawsuit for reparations. According to court documents, the suit was brought against seven different entities, including the city of Tulsa, its County Sheriff, and the Oklahoma Military Department.

President Joe Biden is slated to visit Tulsa on Tuesday for the centennial of the riot.

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Hughes Van Ellis(L), a Tulsa Race Massacre survivor and World War II veteran, testifies before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on "Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre" on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on May 19, 2021. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

"We are not asking for a handout. We are asking for a chance to be treated like first-classed citizens," Ellis, a World War II vet, told lawmakers during his emotional testimony. "Please do not let me leave this Earth without justice like all the other massacre survivors."

"I have survived a hundred years of painful memories and losses," Randle said. "By the Grace of God, I am still here. I have survived to tell this story. I believe that I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully, now, you all will listen to us while we are still here."

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