TULSA, Okla. – On the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, survivors and descendants gathered Monday at Standpipe Hill, where Black World War I veterans fought fiercely in a battle to hold off a White mob descending on the all-Black neighborhood of Greenwood.
They collected soil from the steep slope to honor the victims of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. As many as 300 Black people were killed in the race massacre, which began on May 31, 1921 and raged into the following day, destroying 35 square blocks of one of the most prosperous Black communities in the country.
Viola Fletcher, who was 7 years old during the massacre, sat beside her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, 100, as the dirt – once stained with the blood of Black veterans – was solemnly poured into jars. The glass containers will be sent to the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, where thousands of jars of soil from lynching sites across the country are being collected.
Afterward, as African drums beat at the bottom of the hill, dancers dressed in white performed for Fletcher and Ellis.
Greg Robinson, 31, a community activist and descendant of massacre survivors, said he wanted to come to Standpipe Hill to bear witness not just to the pain Black Tulsa endured but also to its resilience.
“Today is a day full of somber energy,” he said. “But also a day in which you feel and understand the true strength of the ancestors.”
Tulsa spent much of the last century denying and dismissing the racial terror that unfolded here. Now the city is finally acknowledging the history and its lasting scars, even as it resists calls for reparations for the survivors and descendants.
Over the past three days, crowds of Black and White people have flocked to Greenwood for peaceful demonstrations, parades, concerts and panel discussions about the race massacre.
Hundreds are expected to gather late Monday evening for a candlelight vigil, and President Biden is scheduled to visit Tulsa on Tuesday, when the city resumes excavation of a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery that may be connected to the rampage.
At the Vernon AME Church on Greenwood Avenue, where Black people sought refuge during the massacre, the Rev. Robert Turner unveiled a prayer wall for racial healing on Monday morning.
The Rev. William Barber, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people standing outside the historic church, which was set ablaze during the massacre.
In a thunderous voice, Barber explained that he was humbled to “stand on this holy ground. You can kill the people, but you cannot kill the voice of the blood.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson offered a prayer to dedicate the wall connected to the exterior brick of the church’s basement, the only original structure built before 1921 that withstood the burning of Greenwood. The basement is where Black people huddled together to hide from the mob that marched through Greenwood, burning, looting and shooting Black people indiscriminately.
“Outside of the majestic Wailing Wall in Jerusalem,” said Turner, “it will be one of a few public outdoor prayer walls in the world, and we believe it will be the only one solely used for racial healing.”
At Standpipe Hill, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said there can’t be healing without justice and reparations for those killed 100 years ago, especially the Black veterans who fought for their country overseas and then again in Tulsa.
“On this day, I’m going to utter the word reparations,” she said, “because I do not believe it is inconsistent with the patriotic tradition of soldiers in arms, soldiers in cemeteries across America.”
The premier event on Monday, a “Remember and Rise” concert organized by the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, was abruptly canceled over the question of reparations. Remember and Rise was supposed to feature a performance by John Legend and a keynote speech by voting rights activist Stacey Abrams.
Tulsa activists and lawyers representing three of the last known massacre survivors – Fletcher, Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106 – said the celebrities pulled out after the commission failed to address requests that it use some of its funds to compensate survivors and descendants for what they lost during the rampage.
No one was ever punished for the attack, and the victims were never compensated for the lives and property lost.
But Black state Sen. Kevin Matthews, D, told reporters the commission had agreed to pay the survivors $100,000 to each and donate $2 million to a reparations fund in exchange for their participation in Remember and Rise.
Then, Matthews, said, the request changed to $1 million for each survivor and $50 million for the fund – an account the lawyers denied.
On Sunday, John Legend tweeted a message of support to those demanding reparations.