In an appearance this week on MSNBC’s “The ReidOut,” a pair of Tulsa Race Massacre survivors emphasized that they are still fighting for justice more than a hundred years after their community was leveled by White Supremacists.
Viola Fletcher, also known as “Mother Fletcher,” appeared on the show with her brother Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis Sr. on Thursday to speak with host Joy Reid ahead of Fletcher’s 109th birthday, which is being celebrated on Friday. (Other sources say she was born May 10.)
“Have you ever received an apology from the City of Tulsa? Have either of you?” Reid asked.
“No,” Fletcher said matter-of-factly, with a matching response from Ellis.
Hughes and Ellis, who turned 102 in January, are two of the last three living survivors of the 1921 terrorist act. Therein, a White mob attacked and burned the historically Black district of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing as many as 300 and leaving the community in ruins.
Hundreds more were injured and the number of displaced Black residents is unknown, but the survivors and others have long been locked in a battle with the Tulsa city government over the right to restitution. The city has long claimed that because the survivors of the incident are almost all dead, they don’t owe any reparations.
“In this case, you have three survivors, two of whom are sitting right here, they could make repair to and they’re still saying ‘No,’” Reid noted on her show.
“And they utilized the survivors and other descendants—their stories, their names, and likeness—to raise $30 million to build their own historical center that they can use for cultural tourism,” added Damario Solomon-Simmons, executive director of Justice for Greenwood.
The project in question is the Greenwood Rising museum, located in the historic district and funded with part of a $30M campaign organized by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, a joint effort from city and state officials. Even before its completion in 2021, the museum stirred controversy from those who said it was merely symbolic and papered over the ongoing justice claims.
“They won’t share any of the revenue,” Solomon-Simmons told Reid.
“The city, the county, the chamber, and the other powerful elite in Tulsa are still burning Greenwood down. They’ve gentrified all the land. It went from 40 blocks to one-half a block.”
For their part, the living survivors have continued to advocate for their own recompense and for a more full-orbed reckoning from the government that conspired with White Supremacists to carry out the massacre. The city also attempted to cover up the incident after the fact, destroying police records and burying victims in unmarked graves—which have only recently begun to be discovered.
Twenty years after the first official government report on the historic tragedy, the survivors testified before the U.S. Congress in 2021 on the centennial of the attack, making international headlines. Fletcher, Ellis, and 108-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle have since received a $1M donation from a New York philanthropist as government officials continue to refuse payment.
Earlier this year, Fletcher and Ellis made headlines for their trip overseas to the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington, D.C., where they were welcomed as dignitaries and granted citizenship. The small West African country has long been a supporter of African Americans seeking a connection to the mother continent, proclaiming the “Year of Return” in 2018 as a promotion of ethnic unity. Fletcher and Ellis previously visited the country in 2021 and met with the president.
Solomon-Simmons is representing the survivors in a lawsuit against the city, county, and other public officials, seeking damages under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law. Filed in 2020, the case was allowed to proceed in part by a circuit court judge last May.
Ellis, a Black Catholic convert who now lives in Colorado, said in an interview last month that the history of the race massacre needs to be known more widely.
“People gotta know about it. That's what we are trying to do now,” he said.
“Trying to get people to know about history.”
The parties in the lawsuit are due in court on Wednesday, May 10, for a hearing on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.