“I am seeking justice.” That was the reason 107-year-old Viola Fletcher traveled to Washington D.C. for the first time in her life, during a global pandemic, to testify before congress and recount the horrible atrocities she survived at the age of just 7.
The Guardian’s David Smith reported that Fletcher is “the oldest living survivor of a massacre that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31 and June 1, 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.”
According to Smith, “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.”
As the hearing began, Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen, chairman of the panel, welcomed Fletcher 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.”
During her testimony, Fletcher — who was born before the First World War — said “I am here seeking justice. I am here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”
Fletcher reflected on the thriving Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa she was born in, an affluent Black community where many people thought they would be able to achieve the American dream — a dream that was suddenly stolen from Fletcher, her family and the community.
“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,” Fletcher remembered. “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.”
Fletcher told the House committee that there had never been any direct compensation from the city, state or federal government to the massacre survivors or their descendants. She also emphasized that the financial impact of the massacre on the community persists to this day.
“Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not, and other survivors do not, and our descendants do not,” she said. “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,” Fletcher continued. “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.”
While Fletcher said she had never received a dime in compensation for the pain she suffered, Tulsa’s city government continues to profit from her story.
“The city of Tulsa has unjustly used the names and stories of victims like me to enrich itself and its white allies through the $30 million raised by the Tulsa Centennial Commission while I continue to live in poverty,” Fletcher said.
As her testimony ended, she reiterated that she only wanted a bit of justice for the pain she had endured as a child.
“I believe we must acknowledge America’s sins,” she said. “It is the least we can do.”
Following Fletcher’s testimony, her younger brother Hughes Van Ellis, a World War II veteran, testified before the House committee, saying, “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,” Ellis said. “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.”
Smith reported that a third survivor of the massacre, 106-year-old Lessie Evelyn Benningfield Randle, also testified before the House committee virtually. In her testimony, Randle said, “it means a lot to me to finally be able to look you all in the eye and ask you to do the right thing. I have waited so long for justice.”