Survivors remember Tulsa race massacre 100 years later as Biden marks his birthday

Hughes Van Ellis, 100, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, also known as Mother Randle, and Viola Fletcher, 107, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa race massacre and older sister of Van Ellis, attend the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival 2021 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA on May 28, 2021. REUTERS / Polly Irungu

Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, still remembers a house engulfed in flames and bodies piled up in truck platforms – horrors that 100 years later led President Joe Biden to enlist for racial justice.

“I was quite small but I remember running and the soldiers were coming,” Randle said in an interview with Reuters as her hometown of Tulsa prepared to mark one of the darkest chapters in its history .

Monday marked the centenary of a massacre targeting the thriving African-American community of Tulsa in the Greenwood district that went by the nickname Black Wall Street.

After a black man was accused of assaulting a white woman, an allegation that has never been proven, white rioters shot dead blacks, looted homes and burned buildings block by block. Over 1,000 buildings were destroyed.

About 300 people were killed, thousands homeless, and an entire community that had been seen as a symbol of what black Americans could accomplish was devastated.

“It was Mecca. Tulsa (was) considerably what Atlanta is today,” said Duke Durant, 30, comedian, actor and native of Tulsa, referring to one of America’s best known cities. large and prosperous black community.

Biden declared a day of remembrance on Monday, calling on Americans to “work together to eradicate systemic racism and help rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed.”

He recognized the role of the federal government in “stripping the wealth and opportunities of black communities”.

One of the ways Biden said he would tackle racial inequality was “to ensure that infrastructure projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote access. affordable”.

Events related to the commemoration of the massacre began before the anniversary.

On Friday, the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival included a parade led by Randle and two other century-old survivors, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis. The three were joined by community organizations and about 450 students from George Washington Carver Middle School, where the parade began.

At the start of the parade, members of the African Ancestral Society surrounded a horse-drawn carriage holding the three survivors and sang blessings, before the marchers passed past tidy houses towards the heart of Greenwood.

“We are one,” said Van Ellis, 100, from inside the car.

The commemoration is expected to include a visit by Biden on Tuesday and the unveiling of the $ 20 million Greenwood Rising Museum.

The museum, which is dedicated to telling the story of Greenwood, will not be completed in time for the centenary, but there will be a “limited preview,” a Tulsa commission formed to commemorate the anniversary has said on its website.

An event scheduled for Monday that was to feature a performance by award-winning musician John Legend and a speech by politician and activist Stacey Abrams has been called off following a dispute with lawyers for the three survivors, organizers said.

Organizers said they hoped to postpone it. A candlelight vigil would still take place on Monday.

This year’s attention is a departure from the past. For decades, newspapers rarely mentioned the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921. State historians largely ignored the massacre, and children did not hear about it in school, report says. drafted in 2001 by a state commission.

The Tulsans attribute the silence to a number of factors. Black Tulsans were traumatized, worried it would happen again and did not want to pass the information on to their children, while White Tulsans would not have believed that respected members of their community were involved, according to Phil Armstrong, the director of the centenary project. commission, and Michelle Place, executive director of the Historical Society and Museum of Tulsa.

Place said the 2001 report was written before it was too late.

“A lot of these racial massacre survivors were dying or were dead, so it was an effort to tell their stories and remember that part of our history and not let it go to the grave, if you will.” , Place said.

The story is also recorded in the court records. Randle described the bodies and the burning house she saw during testimony in a lawsuit filed in February by survivors and descendants demanding justice for the victims. Calls for redress went unanswered for a long time.

Greg Robinson, 31, community activist and 2020 mayoral candidate, said he was pleased with the increased attention given to Tulsa on the anniversary, but added that more work needed to be done to repair the damage.

“I am happy to see people from across the country come to understand the history of Greenwood,” he said. “But make no mistake, we have a very clear message that until justice is served, we have work to do.”

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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