‘I hear the screams’: Tulsa race massacre remembered

Survivors of 1921 white mob massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and their descendants demand reparations and recognition.

By Jillian Kestler-D'Amours, Al Jazeera

30 May 2021

More than 1,200 homes as well as Black-owned businesses, churches and other buildings were burned during the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 [File: GHI/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

Viola Fletcher can still hear the screams.

She was seven years old when white mobs stormed the streets of Greenwood, a thriving Black community in the US city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31, 1921, killing scores of people, burning homes and businesses, and forcing Black families to run for their lives.

“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,” said Fletcher, one of the last three known survivors of what is known as the Tulsa race massacre.

“I have lived through the massacre every day,” the 107 year old told a United States congressional subcommittee earlier this month. “Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not, and other survivors do not – and our descendants do not.”

As Tulsa marks the 100-year anniversary of the attacks on Monday – and as a reckoning with the US’s long history of anti-Black racism, slavery and state violence continues nationwide – Tulsa massacre survivors and their descendants are still demanding recognition and reparations.

“I think about the terror and horror inflicted upon Black people in this country every day,” Fletcher said. “I’m asking that my country acknowledge what has happened to me – the traumas and the pain and the loss.”

Viola Fletcher testified before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee on May 19 [Jim Watson/AFP]

The massacre

An Oklahoma commission released a report (PDF) in 2001 detailing the deadly violence that engulfed the Greenwood neighbourhood beginning on May 31, 1921 – as well as the racism that led to the hours-long assault on the area, which was also known as “Black Wall Street”.

Scores of people were killed in the violence – estimates vary, but some say the death toll was as high as 300 people, most of whom were Black – and more than 1,200 homes were deliberately burned and destroyed. Black businesses, including hotels, newspapers, cafes, grocery stores, churches, and even a hospital, were torched.

The attacks began hours after a Black teenager was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old white girl. The 2001 report said it was most likely that Dick Rowland fell getting into the elevator where Sarah Page worked as an operator, and stepped on her foot, prompting her to scream. Someone nearby then alerted police to a supposed assault.

The Tulsa Tribune, a local newspaper, ran a story with the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”. Hours later, a white mob had formed outside the city courthouse, calling for a lynching. A shot rang out and the riot had begun; gun-toting white people patrolled the city’s streets, killing Black Tulsans and burning shops and homes.

Photo shows the aftermath at the east corner of Greenwood Avenue and East Archer Street, in June 1921 [File: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images]

Jovan Scott Lewis, an associate professor of geography at UC-Berkeley, told Al Jazeera that during this period across the US, white mob violence in many cases was spurred by what is now an “almost cliched trope … where there is a claim of injury or harm or sexual assault against a white woman by an African-American man”.

“In that era, post-WWI, there was certainly a heightened sense of racial tension in the United States. What we saw was also just a heightened sense of just generalised violence, organised violence … It was mob violence, and the Greenwood district suffered greatly for it,” he said.

Police did not stop the attacks in Tulsa, and some officers are believed to have joined the white mob. Police also swore in nearly 500 white men and boys as “special deputies”, the 2001 report found. “According to Laurel G Buck, a white bricklayer who was sworn in, the police instructed the new recruits to ‘Get a gun and get a n****r,'” it said.

Many Black Tulsans fought back, but they were outnumbered and unable to stop the violence. While some Black residents fled to the countryside, police and National Guard troops rounded up and detained many others, the report found. At about 11:30am on June 1, martial law was declared. Burials were ordered, with bodies dumped in unmarked graves.