(Editor’s Note: This article introduces a Just Security series on the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The series will bring together experts to re-examine different aspects of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.) 

Looking Back

Last week, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing entitled “Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre.” Just Security spoke with several members of the House Judiciary Committee, whose views are presented below.

At the hearing, the oldest living survivor of the Massacre, Viola Fletcher, testified that, at 107 years old, “I have lived through the Massacre every day.” She, along with two other known living survivors – her brother Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle, described how the immense horrors of the Massacre are seared in their memories. Ms. Fletcher recalled, “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.”

While the three known survivors have lived daily with the trauma of the Tulsa Race Massacre for the past one hundred years, for much of their lives the rest of the country was silent. Americans knew little of what has been recognized as “one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.” As a recent Human Rights Watch report detailed, on the eve of May 31, 1921, “a white mob descended on Greenwood, a successful black economic hub in Tulsa, Oklahoma … and burned it to the ground.” The mob burned down 35 blocks of the Black community of Greenwood – including more than 1,200 homes, a dozen or more churches, more than 60 Black-owned businesses, a school, a hospital, and a library. In less than 24 hours, “hundreds of Greenwood residents were brutally killed, their homes and businesses wiped out” and 10,000 residents were left without homes and their life’s possessions.

Beyond the immediate violence, destruction, and trauma, the Massacre left lasting scars that would reverberate for generations. It erased years of hard-built wealth, success, and stability created by the Greenwood community in the face of relentless obstacles. The Massacre destroyed “a sobering kind of inheritance: the incalculable and enduring loss of what could have been, and the generational wealth that might have shaped and secured the fortunes of Black children and grandchildren.” Other scars are less tangible but no less devastating. As survivors have explained, before the Massacre, they felt safe and secure in their community, but afterwards, “everything changed.” Their sense of security and stability were taken from them, along with many of their family members and friends.

Looking Forward

Last week was not the first time the House Judiciary Committee focused on the Tulsa Race Massacre. In 2007, the same subcommittee held a hearing to address justice and accountability for the Massacre through the courts. But the Massacre has only begun to reach widespread national consciousness in the past few years, as it has joined recent broader conversations about racial injustice and racial violence.

Just Security asked several members of Congress on the House Judiciary Committee to share their thoughts on the ways understanding the Massacre can help us understand current issues such as systemic racial injustice, domestic terrorism, and racial violence.

Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) recently introduced legislation based on the one discussed at the 2007 hearing. “As the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre approaches, we must examine this part of our history lest we be bound to repeat it,” Representative Johnson said to Just Security. He continued:

“This massacre of Black lives may have been the deadliest, but it is certainly not an isolated event – and Black people in this nation continue to fight against racist violence even today. We cannot let our future be defined by this hate. I recently introduced the Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act, which would create a federal cause of action for massacre-related claims. The victims and their descendants of this atrocity have been denied justice for far too long. Justice must be served.”

In response to Just Security, Representative Val Demings (D-FL) put the Tulsa Race Massacre in the context of the broader racial violence that occurred at the turn of the 20th century. “For too much of our history, the American Dream has not been available to all,” Representative Demings said. She continued:

“Generations of Black Americans, fresh from the torture and bondage of slavery, poured their sweat and hearts into a better life. Yet when those labors bore fruit, when they began to dream of passing on that legacy to their children, those gains were taken from them by violence.

Black Wall Street — burned to the ground in 1921. East St. Louis—dozens stoned and murdered in 1917. Ocoee, Florida — every Black resident murdered or driven out in 1920.  Rosewood, Florida — the town and its residents wiped from the map in 1923.

We still feel these scars today, in the racial wealth gap, in access to education and opportunity, in the social legacies that open doors for certain people and not for others. Racism is America’s ghost in the room. It’s time to stop letting it haunt us. If we confront our history honestly and openly, with clarity and bravery, we can chart a course to a more just, more prosperous America, and the renewal of the American Dream.”

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI) noted the dangers of repeating history and tolerating hate. “Throughout America’s history, the Black community has watched history repeat itself as it faces incredibly disproportionate levels of violence, racism, and discrimination,” Representative Cicilline told Just Security. He continued:

“Acknowledging our country’s past – especially the darkest parts of it – is the best way to ensure that we stop repeating the worst parts of it in our present.

Racism does not just spring up out of nowhere. It develops in society over time, day by day, as one racist act after another is tolerated or ignored. If we truly want to strive for equality and end unjust violence and discrimination against Black communities, recognizing how that violence is rooted in our history is an important step. This includes understanding and recognizing the Tulsa Massacre, one of the bloodiest days against Black Americans in our nation, which will allow us to have a fuller understanding of how we got where we are and how to move forward from here.”

As Vice Chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, Representative Deborah Ross (D-NC) highlighted the power of hearing from survivors at the hearing last week. “On March 19, the House Judiciary Committee heard from three survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre about its continuing effects on their lives,” said Congresswoman Ross. She continued:

“We learned that survivors of the Massacre lost their homes, their wealth, and their loved ones. They were forced to relocate for their safety. And they never received justice or compensation from the government that stood aside and watched its people’s fortunes burn. The Tulsa Race Massacre serves as indisputable proof of the ways that racism and violence 100 years ago have prevented families today from amassing wealth, obtaining education, and building roots in their communities.

The Tulsa Race Massacre exemplifies the long-term harm of systemic racism, but we must also recognize that the beliefs that incited the Tulsa Race Massacre continue to threaten our nation today. The killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans remind us that people of color are disproportionately harmed by those in authority in our country. The January 6th attack on our Capitol exemplifies how some Americans today will still resort to mass violence, spurred by lies and misinformation, when they disagree with the decisions of their fellow citizens.

If we are to build a more perfect union, it is incumbent upon all Americans, especially those in positions of power, to understand and confront these realities that continue to plague our systems of power.”

* * *

This year marks not only the one hundredth year since the Tulsa Race Massacre, but also the twentieth year since an Oklahoma commission created to study the Massacre issued its detailed report documenting long-overlooked details of the horrors of May 31 and June 1, 1921. As then-Subcommittee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) recognized, the report had “detail[ed] for the first time the extent of the city and State government’s involvement in the riot.” Accordingly, we begin our series with Monica Bell’s article on the significance of this governmental involvement in analyzing the harm caused by the Massacre and the repair needed.

Photo image: Hughes Van Ellis (L), a Tulsa Race Massacre survivor and World War II veteran, and Viola Fletcher (2nd R), oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, testify before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on “Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre” on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on May 19, 2021. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)