Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. You're listening to The Takeaway. On May 31st, 1921, a violent white mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma enacted a deadly and destructive massacre that nearly destroyed the thriving Black community of Greenwood.
Viola Fletcher: On May 31st, in '21, I went to bed in my family's home in Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa. The neighborhood I felt asleep in that night with rich not just in terms of wealth, but in culture, community, heritage, and my family had a beautiful home. We had great neighbors and I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future ahead of me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, one of the few living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, testifying before Congress on May 19th in an effort to secure reparations for survivors and descendants of the massacre. According to the 2001 Race Riot Commission Report, white mobs killed as many as 300 people and destroyed more than 1200 homes and businesses.
Viola Fletcher: 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 seeing 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.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mrs. Fletcher testified alongside two other survivors, her 100-year-old brother Hughes Van Ellis, and 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randall.
Hughes Van Ellis: We were told they just dumped the dead bodies into the river. I remember running outside of our house, I ran past dead bodies. It wasn't a pretty side. I still see it today, in my mind, 100 years later.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Van Ellis, a World War II veteran, told lawmakers that survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre never received any compensation for what was taken from them, and that their efforts in the court system so far have been dismissed.
Hughes Van Ellis: We were made to feel that our struggles were unworthy of justice, that we were less valued than whites, that we weren't fully Americans. 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.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For more on the history and legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre, 100 years later, we're joined by professor Karlos K. Hill, the regents professor and chair of the African and African-American studies department at the University of Oklahoma and author of The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History. Karlos, thank you for being here.
Karlos K. Hill: Thank you for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to start in Greenwood before the massacre. Tell me about this thriving community where this little seven-year-old girl goes to bed, feeling safe.
Karlos K. Hill: Circa 1921, Tulsa's Greenwood district was one of the most affluent Black communities in the country. Part of the reason the Greenwood district is known today is because of Booker T. Washington in 1913 referring to the Greenwood district as the Negro Wall Street of America. What Booker T. Washington was attempting to do was to tilt Black Americans' eyes toward Tulsa, toward Greenwood, and help them to understand that the affluence that Black people had accumulated in the Greenwood district, that was possible for them as well.
Booker T. Washington wanted African-Americans to understand Greenwood as a shining symbol of what was possible in Jim Crow America. If it could happen in Tulsa, Black Americans could possibly have a different reality in Jim Crow America. When the mob attacked Greenwood and destroyed its homes and businesses, it wasn't just those homes and businesses that were attempting to be destroyed, it was the idea that Black people could prosper in these United States, particularly in the segregated United States that was America in 1921.
That also was under attack, under a threat, but luckily, fortunately for us, the community rebuilt, that idea was revived and today it still lives on in the words of mother Randall, in the words of mother Fletcher, as well as Hughes Van Ellis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That point that T. Washington had turned the eyes of Black America to Tulsa, that this was standing as this shining beacon. Then the destruction, the massacre there in Greenwood becomes a collective lynching because lynching is never just about violence against the one body, it is always also an act of terrorism. What I heard you say was, that this also was meant to terrorize, to blot out the notion of this kind of Black success for Black folks throughout the country.
Karlos K. Hill: Absolutely. Lynching revolves around terrorism, terrorism as a form of social control. With lynching, it's a form of racial social control. I have often referred to what occurred on May 31st and June 1st at minimum as a massacre, but it could be framed as a community lynching. With lynching, the history of lynching, a classic lynching really typically involves an individual or their family is the target. With Greenwood, the target of the violence was the community. The goal was not just to destroy, but also to expel Black people, those 11,000 residents who had built Greenwood in approximately 15 years into the Negro Wall Street of America or Black Wall Street. The goal was to expel them from the community.
In writing a photographic history of the race massacre, I came across numerous photographs that helped me to tell that story. One photograph, in particular, was transformed into a postcard and the caption on that postcard read, "Running the Negro out of Tulsa." That photograph captured for me, what was in the hearts and the minds of whites as they burned, as they looted, as they destroyed this historic community. It certainly was a massacre, but I think you could also make a compelling argument that it was a community lynching and an attempted expulsion of Tulsa's Black residents.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Hill, tell us more about the photographs that you found and the story they tell.
Karlos K. Hill: One of the things that I've discovered in beginning my research, deep research on the race massacre was, not only is it the deadliest attacks, single attack on a Black community in American history, it may be the most photographed instance of anti-Black violence in American history. Beginning to talk to the community members about this history and talking to them in ways about this history that they revealed to me, that this was in fact a massacre, trying to piece together this history and how to compellingly offer it up to people who have no idea about the scale and the scope of it, I discovered these photographs.
I couldn't look away. I just could not believe what I was seeing in these photographs, a 35 block area completely destroyed in less than 24 hours. It became incumbent upon me to try to figure out a way to leverage those photographs to tell the story, not the story that the white mob wanted to tell in documenting it and creating these photographs, but, in fact, the story that Viola Fletcher told in Congress, Hughes Van Ellis told in Congress just last week, mother Randall told the story of how this community was viciously attacked, and in less than 24 hours destroyed.
I think the photographs bring that home in ways that even words can't. It became my mission of figuring out a way to use documents, photographs that were created by the mob, but that 100 years later could potentially, if paired alongside oral history account from survivors, could tell a different story, could be re-contextualized to help people understand just the scale and scope of what occurred.
The Photographic History contains about 175 photographs, about 130, 140 of them depict the massacre and another 30 or 40 of them depict or help us to understand who survivors were, help us to understand their stories. I wrote that book in a moment where-- I began to write that book in a moment where the Watchmen was not a part of our conversation. Lovecraft Country wasn't a part of our conversation. Imagining a world where you had to convince people that this was a massacre. Those photographs became exhibit A and the argument for why at minimum we have to talk about this as a massacre. I hope to the extent that the photographs and the oral histories bring that to the fore, I hope that that was accomplished.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Your point, that it was the mob itself that were taking these photographs that they had transformed them into postcards and were proud of these actions goes to the very heart of what is also talked about in the 2001 Commission Report. Now, 20years old, it says not one of these criminal acts with then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level and that no government at any level offered any resistance at the time that it was happening. Is there any possibility now that any measure of justice is possible for survivors and descendants?
Karlos K. Hill: Absolutely. There's a lot of room for justice and accountability. Although white men and boys and women who perpetrated this atrocity on the community have long died, the city of Tulsa is still here. The state of Oklahoma is still here. Those entities aided and abetted and were complicit in the violence. I'll give you just two examples. Rather than disarm whites who began to shoot and attempt to kill Black men who had come downtown to protect [unintelligible 00:11:53] what did local authorities do? They weaponize the mob. They gave them orders to kill and detain Black men who they believe were in rebellion. That was number one.
Number two. Rather than prevent whites from invading the community, the local authorities invaded the community with them. Rather than support the community in the aftermath and rebuilding, the city attempts to impede and actually prevent the community from rebuilding. Again, rather than provide restitution and reparations for victims, for survivors, for descendants of this history, the city initially said that it would, and then days later reneged. If the race massacre is not just the deadliest attack on a Black community in American history, it also represents the liquidation of intergenerational Black wealth. Today there can be a historic investment into the community, an investment that has never happened but should have.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Bring me to Tulsa today, to those blocks, to historic Greenwood. What is life there right now?
Karlos K. Hill: It's certainly not the Black Wall Street of 1921. I would argue that the Greenwood district Black Wall Street remains a symbol of Black excellence. What we have to remember is what made Greenwood special is not the buildings, not the businesses, it's the people, and the people are as tenacious, as gritty, as resourceful as Black people were in 1921 and day in Tulsa in 2021.
What we've had with the community is a series of efforts, attempts by the city to harm this community beginning in the 1960s and 1970s with urban removal. The Greenwood district over time has been gutted. Today there are very few Black-owned businesses and even Black landowners in the Greenwood district. When community members talk about the urban removal policies of the 1960s and 1970s that is what they're referring to. In many cases completed the work that the white mob again in 1921. Greenwood up today is not the Greenwood of 1921, but the bones are still good. The people are really as resourceful. Black Wall Street, despite the fact that it's not the same as it was in 1921, still is a symbol of Black excellence, that symbol that Booker T. Washington more than 100 years ago spoke up.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have to say, the post-Katrina New Orleanian in me jumps up with joy and recognition at the idea that community is about much more than just the buildings. It is always about the people and the spirit of community that exists in that space. There is still room for justice in Tulsa. Karlos K. Hill is regents professor and chair of the African and African-American studies department at the University of Oklahoma and author of The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History. Professor Hill, thank you for joining us.
Karlos K. Hill: Melissa, thank you for having me.
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