For nearly a century she was denied a voice by a culture of silence. Finally, at the age of 107, Viola Fletcher got a national stage on Wednesday to bear witness to America’s deep history of racial violence.
Fletcher is the oldest living survivor of a massacre that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 31 May and 1 June 1921 when a white mob attacked the city’s “Black Wall Street”, killing an estimated 300 African Americans while robbing and burning more than 1,200 businesses, homes and churches.
For decades the atrocity was actively covered up and wished away. But Fletcher and her 100-year-old brother are seeking reparations and, ahead of the massacre’s centenary, appeared before a House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee considering legal remedies.
Congressman Steve Cohen, chairman of the panel, acknowledged coronavirus restrictions and said: “Those in the room, I’d like to ask you to keep your face mask on at all times unless you’re speaking – or unless you’re over a hundred years old.”
Fletcher, born before the first world war, said she was visiting Washington for the first time in her life. She had left home at 6am on Tuesday and got to her hotel after midnight. Wearing an aquamarine jacket, floral blouse, glasses and headphones, she read steadily from a prepared statement.
“I am here seeking justice,” Fletcher said. “I am here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”
She recalled how the Greenwood neighbourhood of Tulsa had once been a thriving and affluent African American community where she could have lived her own American dream. But this bright future was suddenly taken away. “The night of the massacre, I was awakened by my family. My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave and that was it.
“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.”
The hearing was told that there has never been any direct compensation from the city or state for massacre survivors or their descendants, and that racial disparities, compounded by gentrification and urban planning, persist in Tulsa today – a microcosm of America.
Fletcher continued: “Our country may forget this history but I cannot. I will not and other survivors do not and our descendants do not. When my family was forced to leave Tulsa, I lost my chance of 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. Despite this, I spent time supporting the war effort in the shipyards of California. But most of my life, I was a domestic worker serving white families. I never made much money. To this day, I can barely afford my everyday needs.”
She also accused local authorities of profiting from her story. “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 $30m raised by the Tulsa Centennial Commission while I continue to live in poverty.”
Fletcher asked that the country acknowledge her experience and give the survivors a chance to seek justice. “I believe we must acknowledge America’s sins,” she said. “It is the least we can do.”
When her testimony was finished, members of the committee rose to give her a standing ovation. Her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, a second world war veteran, testified next.
He said: “You may have been taught that when something is stolen from you, you can go to the courts to be made whole. You can go to the courts to get justice. This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn’t hear us. The federal courts said we were too late.
“We were made to feel that our struggles were unworthy of justice. That we were less valued than whites, that we weren’t fully American. We were shown that in the United States, not all men were equal under law. We were shown that when Black voices called out for justice, no one cared.”
A third survivor, Lessie Evelyn Benningfield Randle, 106, also testified virtually. She said: “It means a lot to me to finally be able to look at you all in the eye and ask you to do the right thing. I have waited so long for justice.”