Black History

How three survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre continue to fight for reparations 100 years later

The community works to keep the stories of ‘Black Wall Street’ and its history alive

At 106 years old, Lessie Benningfield Randle is pleading for anyone to listen. To listen to the pain and heartbreak of what happened 100 years ago in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. To listen to what happened to hundreds of Black families and their descendants since that night. A century later, the Greenwood District of Tulsa has yet to fully recover.

Randle, known as “Mother Randle,” was 6 years old the night of May 31, 1921, when a white mob, which included city officials, terrorized, attacked and killed Black people in the Greenwood District after a false claim of a white woman being assaulted by a Black man. Before that night, Tulsa was held in high esteem as a burgeoning Black community and was recognized nationally for its business and residential prosperity, which resulted in the district being known as the “Black Wall Street.”

The impact of that night has been felt for generations. No one was charged for the nearly 300 deaths, 1,400 homes and businesses destroyed, lives ruined. No one has been held accountable for the loss. It is why Randle is using her time to fight for justice and reparations for not only herself but for her community. 

Days before local events marked the 100th year of the massacre, Randle, Viola Fletcher (age 107) and Fletcher’s brother Hughes Van Ellis (age 100) made national news as they testified in front of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Washington to demand reparations for themselves and their descendants. Randle — who was too sick to travel — gave a video testimony.

Lessie Benningfield Randle, known as “Mother Randle,” was 6 years old the night of May 31, 1921, when a white mob, which included city officials, terrorized, attacked and killed Black people in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

LaDonna Penny (Mother Randle’s granddaughter)

In her live video, she told the committee: “I have survived 100 years of painful memories and losses. I have survived to tell this story. I believe that I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully, now you all will listen to us while we are still here.”

At 106 years old, facing the ailments that come with age, Randle felt obligated to give her account to Congress. “I wanted to make a difference,” Randle told The Undefeated. 

Randle grew up in Greenwood with her grandmother and recalls life with her cousin, enjoying games of hide-and-seek, hopscotch and Randle’s favorite game, jacks.

“It was really like any other settlement,” Randle told The Undefeated of Black Wall Street. “After the massacre, it changed a lot because they got in there and [ever since] it really doesn’t seem like Greenwood anymore.”

The stories and history of Black Wall Street have had to be pieced together with archived articles, first-person accounts and official records.

“I found a document that said [Randle’s] uncle had a shoeshine shop in Greenwood and it was called Benningfield’s Shoeshine,” said LaDonna Penny, Randle’s granddaughter and power of attorney. “I wasn’t there but they had hospitals, grocery stores. They had the doctor’s office right there. They had their own town. Now we are completely isolated. Nobody comes north, they say they’re too afraid, that there’s nothing but trouble,” said Penny. Randle agreed, “That’s right.”

Following World War I, Tulsa – although segregated – was intended to be a safe and economical haven for Black Americans, said Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, a descendant of one of the victims in the Tulsa Massacre and now a community organizer against police brutality after the killing of her twin brother Terence Crutcher.

“They were coming to Oklahoma, a state that was supposed to be the promised land for Blacks. A state that was supposed to be an all-Black state, a state that had more Black townships than any other state in the Union,” Crutcher said. The Greenwood District was one of about 50 towns founded by Black people in Oklahoma. O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black man, purchased 40 acres of land and named the area Greenwood after a town in Mississippi. Greenwood soon became home to many restaurants, and the newspaper headquarters of Tulsa Star, known for its fearlessness in printing information to progress Black people and businesses.

The thriving area became the center for a massacre just days after Dick Rowland, a Black teen who worked as a shoeshiner, was accused of sexually assaulting Sarah Page, a white teenage girl who worked as an elevator operator. Rowland was arrested on attempted rape charges and was wanted by a white mob. Black men in the Greenwood area, some of whom were World War I veterans, also armed themselves and went to where Rowland was being held to protect him. An altercation at the scene led to gunfire that resulted in white men being killed.

The white mob turned their attention to Greenwood and began looting, destroying businesses and killing Black people in the streets. Randle remembers it all too well, although she was only 6.

“They ran us from one place to the other, chased us like hounds chasing a rabbit,” Randle told The Undefeated. “I saw people shoot people down on the street. I saw people running, I saw bodies, I saw them kill the people and shoot people down. On one end of the street, they just tied them up until somebody could come pick them up in a truck. I was quite small and I don’t remember a whole lot, but I never want to see it again, I know that.”

Hughes Van Ellis (left), a Tulsa Race Massacre survivor and World War II veteran, testifies before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on May 19.

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Now, 100 years later, the Greenwood District of Tulsa has yet to recover as “35% of the Black community in Tulsa live in poverty,” said attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, a native of North Tulsa and representative for massacre survivors.

“Black people own homes 2 to 2½ times less than whites own their homes in Tulsa,” Solomon-Simmons said. “Black unemployment is double to whites. We can also talk about policing. Then there is a very specific, powerful and obvious continuation of the nuisance and it’s the highway that they placed right through our community in 1967, that completely decimated whatever was left for the Greenwood community.”

The highway, Interstate 244, sits between Black people who live on the north side of Tulsa and white people who live on the south side. Building of the highway in 1967 displaced Black families along with their businesses. The same urban renewal plan bought out Randle’s house in 1977, forcing her to move.

Solomon-Simmons describes the north side of Tulsa as an area that “looks like a Third World country. It’s undeveloped, a food desert, and there isn’t any access to adequate health care or hospitals.”

In September 2020, Solomon-Simmons filed a lawsuit on behalf of the survivors against the city of Tulsa for reparations and the continuing nuisance the city has caused in the Greenwood District since 1921. This is the second attempt at suing for reparations.

In 2001, the Oklahoma Commission published a report that found the city of Tulsa and state of Oklahoma responsible for the massacre and declared that reparations should be paid. As a result, in 2003, civil rights attorneys Johnnie Cochran, Professor Charles Ogletree and Willie Gary filed a lawsuit in federal court for reparations. The case was thrown out in 2005. According to the federal court, although they agreed that reparations were owed, the lawyers had waited too long to bring it to trial under the statute of limitations. Now, Solomon-Simmons is taking the case to state court.

“They ran us from one place to the other, chased us like hounds chasing a rabbit. I saw people shoot people down on the street. … I was quite small and I don’t remember a whole lot, but I never want to see it again, I know that.”

– Mother Randle

“The statute in Oklahoma is very powerful and it specifically states that there’s no statute of limitations on a public nuisance and gives us the ability to step into the shoes of the government and move this case forward,” he said.

It was Oklahoma’s public nuisance law in 2019 that held Johnson & Johnson accountable for more than $500 million for its role in the state’s opioid suit against the company. According to the 2006 Oklahoma Code – Title 50: a public nuisance is defined as “one which affects at the same time an entire community or neighborhood, or any considerable number of persons, although the extent of the annoyance or damage inflicted upon the individuals may be unequal.” “They were able to go back 40-plus years and show how the nuisance continued,” said Solomon-Simmons. “So we are following the same playbook and feel very strongly that we will be able to move our case forward.”

For survivors like Randle and their descendants, it took decades before the tragedy would become broadly known. Those who survived didn’t always discuss the terror and if they wanted to, they were scared into silence.

“I had no clue that my great-grandmother experienced such racial terror,” said Crutcher. “I went to some of the best schools in Tulsa and I didn’t learn anything about the Tulsa race massacre in Oklahoma history. Nobody mentioned it at all. It wasn’t until I went off to college and people from other states would ask where I’m from and I would say Tulsa and they would immediately say, ‘Oh! Black Wall Street,’ or ‘Tulsa race riot,’ and I had no idea.”

When Crutcher asked her father about the Tulsa Massacre, he shared the story of his grandmother, who fled the area as it was under fire. It was a story he himself didn’t learn about until he was a teenager.

“His grandmother whispered to him, ‘Something like that happened here,’ ” said Crutcher. “They were forced into silence and had to deal with this internally and didn’t say anything because they were told if they ever said anything they would be lynched. White supremacist tactics forced them into silence because they wanted to live.”

Education is now at the center of the discussion for many in Oklahoma. People are working to make the story part of a curriculum. Crutcher is hosting a festival the week of the centennial to honor Randle, Fletcher and Van Ellis.

To fix the lack of education surrounding the Tulsa massacre and its impact on the community in modern times, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission was founded in 2015. The commision has raised money to commemorate the memories and history of the once Black-owned and successful section of Tulsa. It has curated a historical curriculum now accessible to the Oklahoma State Department of Education and recently built Greenwood Rising, a nonprofit historical center that will be dedicated on Tuesday.

Overall, the commission has reportedly raised around $30 million. According to the breakdown of their funding statement: $20 million for Greenwood Rising and its operations; $1.2 million for the Greenwood Art Project; $1.75 million for the Pathway to Hope and Greenwood District markers, a walkway path for pedestrians to symbolically put back together the Greenwood District after highway I-244 split the area; $5.3 million for Greenwood’s Cultural Center renovation; and another $1.5 million is dedicated to commemoration activities, community grants, and educational and economic programming.

“The primary portion of this came from corporations and foundations who believed in what we were doing and wrote the big checks,” said Phil Armstrong, the commission’s project director.

“We had a list of over 1,500 people who said, ‘I don’t have a million dollars, but here’s $5, here’s $15, here’s $100. And then the state put in a revolving fund of $1.5 million, but it’s held with the Oklahoma Historical Society, it’s not a direct reparation or payment. It was an establishment of a fund to help go towards the history and the teaching of this history.”

Besides private donations and community fundraising, the city of Tulsa also gave $5.3 million for the remodeling and revamping of the Greenwood Cultural Center. While highlighting the history of Black Wall Street is a goal, the distribution of money to survivors or lack of has caused misunderstandings. Survivors and community leaders say that a portion of the money received on behalf of the project should have been donated to survivors and descendants.

“We’ve been asking them for several months to provide funding from the money they raised,” Solomon-Simmons said. “We believe it’s very easy for them to have a conversation with their funders and say, ‘Hey, this is what we want to do.’ ”

Because the commission received restricted donor funds, Armstrong said, it has a fiduciary responsibility to spend the money on specific projects.

“If I was to take a portion of the money and give it to survivors, I would go to jail,” said Armstrong. 

The commission’s goal of raising funds for the project was driven by philanthropy, Armstrong said. He agrees the families should be financially supported, but he said that compensation should be the responsibility of those “found to be complicit.”

“It should not come onto the backs of donors and private citizens to absolve the liability of who was complicit,” Armstrong said. “If you raise money, then those who were found to be complicit: the Tulsa Police Department, the city of Tulsa, the State of Oklahoma Guard, should not be let off the hook and say, ‘Oh, well you went out and raised $30 million for these people, so we don’t have to do anything.’ We’re totally against that.”

The community has provided for the survivors. For instance, Randle received home repairs through the leadership of Crutcher and her foundation, the Terence Crutcher Foundation, which partnered with Tulsa home renovation program Revitalize T-Town and others.

The collaboration to repair Randle’s home significantly improved her quality of living, but the project only covered a portion of the house. Randle’s house still has leaky breezeway. Her years working as a nursing aide did not provide enough retirement savings for her to pay for home repairs. She can barely afford food.

“The house that they just renovated was [a result] of poverty. I would have to bring food from my house or go to the grocery store just to keep food in her house,” said Penny. 

The conversation about reparations continues along with the questions such as who should pay and when. “I think the most obvious place it should be coming from is the taxpayers,” said Mihir Desai, an economist and professor of finance at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, who put together a case study and curriculum on the reparations owed to Black people in Tulsa and has taught it to business leaders. “The thing that people struggle with is they say, ‘Why should I pay for something I had no part of?’ And I think the answer to that is well, in fact, we are a part of a community and that community has a legacy of success and failures and those legacies and those debts as well as those assets continue through the generations that this is an unpaid debt, and that means that the community in Tulsa and Oklahoma should bear it.”

This system has been applied to reparations for those affected by the Rosewood massacres in Florida and those affected by the Holocaust.

“The interesting thing about the Florida example is that they framed it not as an issue of racial justice, they framed it as a property destruction. It’s satisfying because people like it, but it’s unsatisfying because you’re not acknowledging the racial element of what happened,” said Desai. “It’s in part about political power. In Florida you had a more politically powerful Black community, you had a number of celebrities who got onto the train, and as a result of all that it became a cause that people wanted to sign up to. In Tulsa, the Black community is not very well empowered there. They don’t have a lot of seats in the House, so it’s been harder to get their voices heard.”

In Oklahoma’s House of Representatives, it has been tough to push for the reparations, but Regina Goodwin, who is also a descendant of someone affected by the massacres, is diligent in her fight.

“There are white folks that are in power that feel that they’re not responsible for paying anybody back, and that’s why for 100 years you have not seen anyone make the effort,” said Goodwin.

Goodwin is a descendant of prosperous business owners who once occupied Black Wall Street. She is no stranger to the history of the Tulsa massacres. The vicious night along with the prosperous triumphs of her successful ancestors lived on through the African art of oral storytelling in her household. Goodwin learned about the successes of her great-grandfather, James Henri Goodwin, and her great-grandmother, Carlie Marie Goodwin. Goodwin’s grandfather was the business manager of the Tulsa Star. When Goodwin’s family tried to recover their losses after the massacre, her grandmother demanded reparations for close to $76,000, which would equate to about a million dollars today. Goodwin’s grandmother was rejected and 100 years later, Black folks from Tulsa continue to fight.

“The collective harm that they did, today they reap the collective benefit. It has not happened because there is a dominant culture that does not want it to happen. There’s a dominant culture that says, ‘We hold control of the votes, we decide what bank loans are going to be.’ So those dynamics hinder real reparations and that’s what we have to address,” said Goodwin.