by Dr. E. Faye Williams, Esq.
(TriceEdneyWire.com)—“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” – Carter G. Woodson
These words, from one of the most renown and impactful African American historians, were not specific to the city of Tulsa, but accurately describe how many African Americans related to Tulsa, at least until HBO’s limited series Watchmen. Absent the superhero and science-fiction aspects, Watchmen introduced the brutal history of the Tulsa Race Massacre to significant numbers of Americans—both Black and White.
Far too few African Americans knew/know that, before 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the center of a thriving cultural and financial Black community. Prosperity was so widespread that Tulsa was known as the “Black Wall Street.” That prosperity came to a dramatic end on May 31 and June 1, 1921 when White Tulsa attacked Black Tulsa—residential and business —with a ground assault and bombing from private aircraft. The attack left 35 square blocks burned or destroyed, and uninhabitable to about 10,000 of its former residents, about 6,000 Blacks were interned in large facilities, 800+ people hospitalized, and estimates of 300 Black people killed. Property damage was estimated at more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.65 million in 2020).
In 1996, 75 years after the massacre, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was formed. The commission’s final report, published in 2001, states that the city had conspired with the mob of White citizens against Black citizens.
It is appropriate to mourn the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre, but, more importantly, its Centennial Observance gives us the opportunity to honor and celebrate the strength and resilience of our survivors. “I am here seeking justice,” said Mother Viola Fletcher, one of the oldest living survivors of the massacre. Fletcher said. “I am here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.” Tulsa survivors Mother Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis testified to members of Congress. Ms. Lessie Randle, 106, also testified virtually.
Fletcher said, “I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.” said Mother Viola Fletcher. “I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home. I still see 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.”
Proudly, on June 1, 2021, I’ll join celebrities, organizational leaders, and concerned citizens from over the world visiting historic Tulsa sites. We will celebrate the resilience of the people and the legacy of the few remaining survivors.
I will represent the National Congress of Black Women and present an award to Ms. Lelia Foley-Davis, the first Black woman mayor in the nation. She remains a long-time leader in Oklahoma. We will also recognize Ms. Fletcher. It was a blessing to witness the strength of her testimony before Congress.
Pastor Robert Turner of the historic Vernon A.M.E Church and I serve on the National African American Reparations Commission. His church still stands after 100 years, but Black Tulsa has never really recovered from the devastation. The massacre is another clear example of Black wealth stolen by racism and racist violence.
Despite these challenges, “We have a wonderful history behind us. … If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else’.” – Carter G. Woodson
(Dr. E. Faye Williams is President of the National Congress of Black Women.)