As it stands, there are just three known living individuals who survived the 1921 destruction of the Greenwood district in Tulsa. These individuals are presently are plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit filed in 2020 that suggests that the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma are responsible for what transpired on May 31, 1921.
The plaintiffs of the lawsuit include relatives of those impacted by the 1921 Tulsa massacre and the few remaining survivors: Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis. Below are their stories based on their recent testimony at the House Judiciary subcommittee last week.
Lessie Benningfield Randle, who is 106 years old and the last known survivor still living in Tulsa, says she remembered how life changed suddenly after the events in Tulsa. Before the massacre, she was a happy 6-year-old child who felt safe, but after that day “everything changed.”
“They burned houses and businesses,” she recounted. “They just took what they wanted out of the buildings, then they burned them. 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. … White people were trying to kill all the Black men.
Viola Fletcher is 107. She was 7 years old when she witnessed the vile acts of racial violence carried out by mobs of White men in Tulsa in 1921. She told the House Judiciary subcommittee that she “still [sees] Black men being shot, 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.”
In her riveting personal account, she noted, “at first, we saw a bunch of men with those big pine torches come through the backyard. And I remember our mother put us under the table. She took the longest tablecloth she had to cover four children and told us not to say a word. It was a horrifying thing for a little girl who’s only 6 years old – trying to remember to keep quiet, so they wouldn’t know we were there.
“We lost everything that day. Our homes. Our churches. Our newspapers. Our theaters. Our lives. Greenwood represented the best of what was possible for Black people in America – and for all people. No one cared about us for almost 100 years.”
Hughes Van Ellis is 100 and the baby brother of Viola Fletcher. An infant at the time, he spoke of how his family and others have been fighting for decades to receive justice for the burning and killing that began that day. He said, “We are asking for justice for a lifetime of ongoing harm,” and asked for the “… chance to be made whole. Please do not let me leave this earth without justice.”
Ellis is also a U.S. Army veteran who fought in World War II.
Check out the video of the survivors on the following page.