Century later, reparations would begin a healing from Oklahoma’s horrific Tulsa Race Massacre
When HBO’s 2019 “Watchmen” television series opened with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and its “Lovecraft Country” series ended last year with scenes from the riots, most Americans – black and white – had never heard of the event. Even Tulsans.
On May 19, 107-year-old survivor Viola (“Mother”) Fletcher helped push a bill for reparations by reading emotional written testimony about her massacre experience to a House Judiciary subcommittee. Mother Fletcher was accompanied by two more survivors: her 100-year-old brother, Hughes Van Ellis, and 106-year old survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle.
“Today, I am in Washington, D.C., for the first time in my life. I am here seeking justice. I am here seeking justice and 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 controversy, one that is a pox on this country’s unwillingness to redress the human rights violation and 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 Tulsans built businesses and services including grocers, banks, libraries, theaters, churches, barber and beauty shops and retail stores, to name a few.
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 and the only black hospital, creating about 10,000 homeless people, with approximately 6,000 of them 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, it would be equivalent to $32.7 million. Had the Tulsa Race Massacre not happened, today the Greenwood section would mirror Atlanta, boasting generations of wealth with a historic middle class and up-and-coming black professionals clamoring to be there.
Today the reality for Black Tulsans is grim, and their lives are 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 is $28,399 compared with $51,053 in white households. Blacks adults are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than whites, while black juveniles (up to age 17), are more than three times as likely to be arrested than white juveniles.
Whereas black homeownership was common before the Tulsa race massacre, it’s out of reach today for most. Black Tulsans’ homeownership is 39 percent, compared with 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 faced across the country – school funding, substandard curriculums, low test scores, large class size and harsh disciplinary policies that create a school-to-prison pipeline, to name a few.
Mother 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, Mother 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 Supreme Court declined to hear a reparations-case appeal.
Congressman John Conyers introduced the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2007 for reparations, and tried again with the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2012. Last year, Human Rights Watch released a report, “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma.” And this year, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the event, the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission raised that $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 impedes its own healing.
The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.