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Tulsa Witness: 'They Were Killing All the Black People'

City marks centennial of attack whose destruction is still felt today
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 31, 2021 5:15 PM CDT
Tulsa Centennial Brings Assessments of Lasting Damage
People walk by a mural for Black Wall Street, as the area was known, in the Greenwood district during centennial commemorations Sunday of the Tulsa Race Massacre.   (AP Photo/John Locher)

For decades, many Americans knew little of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Events and news media coverage marking the centennial this weekend are trying to change that, partly by assessing the lasting pain and depth of the horrific attack on the city's Black people—including an examination of how the crime was covered up. Here's a look:

  • Viola Fletcher was 7 when the white mob came. She told NBC what she remembers about that night: "People running and screaming. And noise from the air like an airplane. And—just so many things was disturbing, you know. And fires burning, and smelling smoke." Someone went through the area saying "that everybody should leave town, that they were killing all the Black people." Her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, was an infant but was affected by the aftermath. He still can't sleep at night. "I have to have light," he said. "I love light." Fletcher's family woke her up and said they had to leave. She said that night has stayed with her. "Every evening, you know, I kind of have a feeling it's time to run and no telling what might happen."

  • The Wall Street Journal examines the lasting economic toll. Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood was one of the most prosperous Black areas in the nation in 1921, with luxury stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing shops, restaurants, doctors' offices, a library, schools, and its own post office. In today's money, the attack destroyed at least $22 million in those assets. Many residents ended up living in North Tulsa, but neither area ever came back the same. North Tulsa got its first full-service grocery store in 14 years just weeks ago. Lessie Evelyn Benningfield Randle, 106, one of the survivors, told a congressional hearing: "My community, North Tulsa, Black Tulsa, is still messed up today. ... It's empty, it's a ghetto." Instead of being passed down through generations, the wealth of 1921 Greenwood was wiped out; the wealth gap between Black and white Americans has only widened. The great-grandson of a successful entrepreneur said his family's loss, by now, "would have compounded to over $100 million," per NPR. One expert said: "Tulsa is just one example that Black people have shown the ability to create wealth, but have never had the opportunity to compound wealth. Every generation of Black families starts over."

  • It wasn't an accident that the attack was largely unknown for decades. "The massacre was actively covered up in the white community in Tulsa for nearly a half century," a professor said. It didn't become part of the curriculum in Oklahoma public schools until 2000, per CNBC. Official documents, including National Guard reports, vanished. "Tulsa’s two daily white newspapers, they went out of their way for decades not to mention the massacre," Scott Ellsworth said. "Researchers who would try to do work on this as late as the early 1970s had their lives threatened and had their career threatened." Police went to every photography studio in Tulsa to seize photos of the massacre. They've since been recovered and have been at the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum since 2001. Michelle Place, who'd never heard of the riot, said it took her days to sort the photos she called horrific. She doesn't want them lost again. "Since I’ve been here, I've been at my desk to guard them to the very best of my ability," she said.

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  • Vernon AME Church was among the few buildings in Greenwood to survive the attack, though it was damaged by fire, per CNN. At a service Monday, per NBC, the Rev. Robert Turner said, "This is the largest crime scene in America that has never been investigated." The pastor also called for reparations.
  • President Biden issued a proclamation declaring Monday a day of remembrance. He named the survivors, per CNN, in promising to never forget. His statement asked Americans to "reflect on the deep roots of racial terror in our Nation and recommit to the work of rooting out systemic racism across our country."
  • In a tweet, former President Obama asked everyone to "take a moment to learn about what happened." He recommended an article in the Washington Post.
(More Tulsa stories.)

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