An Update in a Long Fight for Justice

On April 2, 109-year-olds Viola Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield Randle appeared together at a Tulsa courthouse in a hearing before Oklahoma’s Supreme Court. Mother Fletcher and Mother Randle, as they are known in their communities, are the last two known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In 2020, they were part of a group of survivors and descendants who filed a lawsuit seeking reparations for the White supremacist mob violence that destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood District on May 31-June 1, 1921, devastating Tulsa’s Black community with effects that have rippled through generations.  

At the time of the massacre, Greenwood was one of the most prosperous Black communities in the country, nicknamed “Black Wall Street,” and home to Black businesses, theaters, churches, restaurants, and thousands of Black citizens. By the end of the mob violence, historians estimate as many as 300 Black citizens were killed, 35 city blocks were burned down, and 10,000 people were left unhoused. Instead of stopping attackers, police deputized White civilians. They gave them more guns and ammunition, and the Oklahoma National Guard helped round up and detain 6,000 Black residents. No one was charged for any of the deaths, injuries, or property damage. The lawsuit has been an attempt to seek a measure of justice. 

In 2021, Mrs. Fletcher, Mrs. Randle, and Mrs. Fletcher’s brother Hughes Van Ellis, who passed away in October, were invited to provide Congressional testimony on the massacre’s centennial. Mrs. Fletcher, who had just turned seven when the massacre happened, said: “On May 31st in 1921, I went to bed at my family’s home in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa. The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich—not just in terms of wealth, but in culture, community, heritage, and my family had a beautiful home. We had great neighbors and I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future ahead of me . . . Within a few hours, all that was gone.”  

She continued: “I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot and 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. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.” 

Mrs. Randle, who was six, testified about her own memories before her grandmother’s home was destroyed: “I didn’t have any fears as a young child, and I felt very safe. My community was beautiful. It was filled with happy and successful Black people. Then, everything changed. It was like a war. White men with guns came and destroyed my community. We couldn’t understand why. What did we do to them? We didn’t understand. We were just living, but they came, and they destroyed everything. They burned houses and businesses . . .They murdered people. We were told they just dumped the dead bodies into the river. I remember running outside of our house. I ran past dead bodies. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I still see it today in my mind—100 years later.” 

Mrs. Randle added: “You can help us get some justice. America is still full of examples where people in positions of power, many just like you, have told us to wait. Others have told us it is too late. It seems like justice in America is always so slow or not possible for Black people. We are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right. There are always so many excuses for why justice is so slow or never happens at all . . .We have waited too long, and I am tired. We are tired.” She ended: “I am asking you today to give us some peace. Please give me, my family, and my community some justice.”  

Last summer, a judge dismissed their case. Many observers believe their appeal before the state’s Supreme Court on whether they have the right to continue their lawsuit may be one of the final chances for Mrs. Fletcher and Mrs. Randle to receive some measure of justice and peace. They said in a joint statement: “We are grateful that our now-weary bodies have held on long enough to witness an America, and an Oklahoma, that provides Race Massacre survivors with the opportunity to access the legal system. Many have come before us who have knocked and banged on the courthouse doors only to be turned around or never let through the door.” The fight continues.