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Viola Fletcher, oldest living survivor of Tulsa Race Massacre, testifies in Congress 'seeking justice'

Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, testified before Congress on Wednesday seeking “justice” a century after one of the most horrific racist attacks in the nation’s history.

Fletcher testified before members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, some of whom discussed potential remedies for survivors of the tragedy and their descendants during the hearing.

Fletcher, who is among other survivors of the massacre taking legal action against the city as well as Oklahoma in seeking reparations over the attack, was seven years old when white mobs descended on the thriving Black community in Tulsa’s Greenwood District, also known as Black Wall Street, in 1921, burning it to the ground.

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Fletcher, who recently turned 107 years old and had been in her family home in Greenwood at the time of the attack, described the horror during her hearing.

“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,” Fletcher said.

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home,” she testified. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lining 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. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not, and other survivors do not. And our descendants do not,” she said.

Fletcher said when her family left Tulsa that she lost her chance to get an education and “never finished school past the fourth grade.”

“I have never made much money, and my country, state and city took a lot from me,” she said. “Despite this, I spent time supporting the war effort in the shipyards of California. But most of my life I was a domestic worker serving white families."

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“I never made much money, but to this day I can barely afford my everyday needs,” she said, adding, “All the while the city of Tulsa have unjustly used the names and stories of victims, like me.” 

“I am 107 years old and have never seen justice,” she continued. “I pray that one day I will. I have been blessed with a long life and have seen the best and the worst of this country. I think about the horror inflicted upon Black people in this country every day.”

 

Fletcher said the Judiciary subcommittee has “the power to lead us down a better path” and that she is asking the country acknowledge what has been happened to her and others. 

During his remarks at the start of the hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenWray grilled on FBI's handling of Jan. 6 Viola Fletcher, oldest living survivor of Tulsa Race Massacre, testifies in Congress 'seeking justice' Lobbying world MORE (D-Tenn.), chair of the subcommittee, said 300 people were estimated to have been killed during the massacre. 

“The white mob consisting of thousands of people murdered Black residents, looted their property and burned more than 1,000 homes, churches, schools and businesses,” he said. 

“That mob fueled by racial fear and hatred was aided and abetted by some of the very government officials who were supposed to be protecting the innocent residents and property owners of Greenwood,” he said. 

“In other words, the massacre did not simply represent a negligent failure by government authorities to maintain order. Rather, agents of the local and state governments were active participants in the crime,” he continued.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Cohen noted that many Black residents were placed in internment camps “out of fear of what the authorities characterized as a so-called Negro uprising.”

While a grand jury issued a report after the massacre placing blame on the Black community over the attack, Cohen said “no white person was ever held accountable for crimes committed during the massacre.”

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The lawmaker added that the massacre resulted in property damage estimated to be “anywhere between 25 million to 100 million in today's dollars, representing a tremendous loss of wealth for Tulsa's Black community.”

That loss, Cohen also said, was compounded “with each succeeding generation,” while “the descendants of the white mob that looted Greenwood’s businesses and homes have had the chance to build on the wealth of their ancestors, including stolen wealth.”

The hearing comes a month after the subcommittee approved legislation, H.R. 40, that would establish a federal exploratory commission on reparations for Black Americans. 

The move marked the first time a House committee greenlighted the long-standing measure and came after a nationwide discussion around reparations for Black Americans reignited last year amid months of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

In later remarks on Wednesday, Cohen discussed the push for compensation for survivors and descendants of the massacre, acknowledging that victims have not received direct compensation from the state of Oklahoma or the city of Tulsa over the attack.

“The massacre has exacerbated government actions that over the decades have disproportionately burdened Black Tulsans, preventing many from rebuilding their community and regaining stolen” wealth, he said, adding that present-day racial and economic disparities in the city can be traced back to the massacre.

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“This is clear from the fact that North Tulsa, which has a higher concentration of Black residents as poor, has fewer businesses and large-scale employers, has the fewest jobs, has more than doubled the unemployment rate and has the lowest life expectancy when compared to the rest of Tulsa,” Cohen stated.

A potential remedy he raised for survivors of the massacre and their descendants was “the idea of Victim Compensation Fund.”

“This subcommittee has jurisdiction over such compensation funds. For example, last Congress we held a hearing to permanently reauthorize the 9-11 Victim Compensation Fund, which one of our witnesses suggested as a model for compensating potential Tulsa claimants,” he said.

“I'd be interested in hearing from our witnesses more details as to how such a fund would be structured and funded. As chairman of the subcommittee, I pledged to work with you on legislation on this front,” Cohen added.