When HBO's 2019 "Watchmen" television series opened with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and HBO's 2020 "Lovecraft Country" television series closed with scenes from the riots, most Americans — Black and white — had never heard of the event, even many people from Tulsa.
Yet, it stands as one of the worst incidents of racial hatred against Black Americans in U.S. history. Over a 24-hour period, a white mob intent on destroying the Greenwood district — a symbol of Black prosperity — burned 35 city blocks to the ground. More than 800 people were injured and 300 killed, according to estimates.
A century later, the wounds of the Tulsa Race Massacre are still wide open.
On May 19, the 107-year-old survivor, Viola Fletcher, testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee about her experience during the massacre to help push a bill for reparations. Fletcher was accompanied by other 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,” said Fletcher. “I am here seeking justice. I am here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921."
The struggle for Black Tulsa survivors and their descendants to receive reparations has been a century-old controversy, one that is a blight on this country's unwillingness to redress the racist violence that first and foremost took so many lives but also forced 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 own businesses and services, including grocers, banks, libraries, theaters, churches, barber and beauty shops, 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 and the only black hospital were razed. The property damage was more than $2.2 million — that’s the equivalent of $32.65 million in 2020 dollars. Had the Tulsa Race Massacre not happened, today, the Greenwood section would mirror Atlanta, which has accumulated generations of Black wealth and is a place with a thriving Black middle class.
But, sadly today, the reality for Black Tulsa residents is more grim. According to the 2020 Census, 33.5 percent live below the poverty line, and the median household income for Black households is $28,399 compared to $51,053 for white households. Black adults in Tulsa are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than whites, and black children are more than three times as likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.
Whereas Black homeownership was once common before the Tulsa race massacre, it's out of reach today for many. Thirty-nine percent of Black Tulsa residents own a home compared to 71 percent of white residents.
Like so many, Fletcher's life was interrupted, and she never recovered.
"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. … 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 the better part of a century, Fletcher has been seeking reparations. Bills have been recently been introduce in Congress that would give reparations to survivors and descendants of the victims. In 2007, Congressman John Conyers introduced the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2007. In 2012, Conyers reintroduced the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2012. Last year, Human Rights Watch released a report titled "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 $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. Fletcher and the remaining survivors deserve justice. America's inability to redress this wrong impedes its own healing.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist, the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail and a visiting researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.