When HBO's 2019 Watchmen series opened with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and HBO's 2020 Lovecraft Country series closed with scenes from the riots, most Americans had never heard of the eventeven Tulsans.
On May 19, 2021, the 107-year-old survivor Viola ("Mother") Fletcher read her emotional written testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee about her massacre experience to help push a bill for reparations. Fletcher was accompanied by two more survivors: her 100-year-old brother, Hughes Vann Ellis, and 106-year old survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle.
Viola said, "Today, I am in Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life. I am here seeking justice. I am here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921."
The struggle for Black Tulsan survivors and their descendants to receive reparations has been a century-old controversyone that is a pox on this country's unwillingness to redress the human rights violation and the generational loss of accumulated wealth.
The Greenwood section of Tulsa was known as "Black Wall Street." It was built on Booker T. Washington's philosophy of self-reliance, economic empowerment, and black entrepreneurship. The flourishing hub was one of the major economic engines in the state, and one of the most affluent black communities in the country. Residing in Jim Crow's America, Black Tulsa residents created their businesses and services, including grocery stores, banks, libraries, theaters, churches, barber and beauty shops, and retail stores, to name a few.
However, the financial and property loss created by the Tulsa Race Massacre was staggering: at least 191 businesses, 1,256 houses, several churches, a junior high school, the only Black hospital and about 10,000 homeless peopleof which approximately 6,000 of them were placed in internment camps throughout the city. The property damage was more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property; in 2020 dollars, the property damage would be equivalent to $32.65 million. Had the Tulsa Race Massacre not happened, today's Greenwood section would mirror Atlanta, boasting generations of wealth that comprise a historic middle-class and up-and-coming black professionals clamoring to be there.
Sadly, today, the reality for Black Tulsans is grim, and their lives are constantly besieged with nonstop policing, poverty and prison.
For example, according to the 2020 Census, Blacks make up 15.6 percent of the population, and 33.5 percent live below the poverty line. The median household income for blacks is $28,399, compared to $51,053 in white households. Blacks adults are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than whites, and Black juveniles (ages 0-17) are more than three times as likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.
Whereas Black homeownership was once common before the deadly Tulsa event, it's out of reach today for most. Black Tulsans' homeownership is 39 percent, compared to 71 percent for white Tulsans.
The educational gap is abysmal. The Black/white achievement gap in education for Black Tulsans goes hand-in-hand with the social and racial disparities Black students face today across the countryschool funding, substandard curriculums, low test scores, large class size and harsh disciplinary policies (school-to-prison pipeline), to name a few.
Viola Fletcher's education and her life were interrupted, and she never recovered.
"When my family was forced to leave Tulsa, I lost my chance at an education. I never finished school past the fourth grade. I have never made much money. My country, state, and city took a lot from me. Despite this, I spent time supporting the war effort in the shipyards of California. But for most of my life, I was a domestic worker serving white families. I never made much money," Fletcher testified. "To this day, I can barely afford my everyday needs. All the while, the City of Tulsa has unjustly used the names and stories of victims like me to enrich itself and its white allies through the $30 million raised by the Tulsa Centennial Commission while I continue to live in poverty."
For a century, Fletcher has been seeking reparations. Just this century alone, bills have been presented to Congress requesting reparations to survivors and descendants of the victims. In 2001, the "1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act" was signed into law but failed to deliver reparations. In 2005, the SCOTUS declined to hear a reparations-case appeal.
In 2007, Congressman John Conyers introduced the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2007, for reparations. In 2012, Conyers reintroduced the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2012, seeking the same. Last year, Human Rights Watch released a report titled "The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma," asking for reparations. And, this year, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the event, the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission raised $30 million for a new museum, but not a cent to repay survivors and their descendants.
Requests for restitution continue to fall on deaf ears. Long after Mother Fletcher and the remaining survivors are gone, America's inability to redress this wrong will impede its own healing.