Tulsa 100 Years Later: Seeking Justice
The legacy of the thriving Black community that lived in Tulsa’s Greenwood District a century ago is now being reckoned with by the city and a nation being forced to look at a history of racism and the violence that has often come with it.
For descendants of the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, that reckoning means the world must know they expect nothing less than full reparations for one of the worst incidents of racial terrorism against Black citizens in United States history.
“The story of Greenwood and Black Wall Street did not stop and start with the massacre,” Dr. Tiffany Crutcher told BET.com in an interview. On May 19, she gave testimony at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing marking the centennial of the tragedy and speaking on why reparations are due.
Crutcher was one of a group of descendants — and three survivors now older than 100—speaking at the hearing, laying out their case for why the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma owe reparations for the racial terrorism that decimated their community. She called for the government to atone for what many feel has never been properly acknowledged.
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“This isn’t an ‘us vs them’ issue; this is about the survivors,” Crutcher said. “This is about honoring their legacies, elevating their stories and fighting for the justice they have still not received.”
Ultimately, amidst the excitement of high-profile entertainers and politicians, descendants like Crutcher want the world to wade past the puff of publicity to reach a deeper understanding of what rebuilding Black Wall Street means to the Greenwood community.
“The City of Tulsa—our own government—was complicit in inciting it, allowing it and covering it up,” Crutcher said. “There is an ongoing, concerted effort to choose unity over justice—and these survivors, these descendants all deserve better.”
But her quest to win reparations for the descendants comes with a link to today’s persistent racial justice issues, particularly with police violence.
In 2016, her twin brother, Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by a Tulsa police officer in a traffic stop. He was unarmed. The officer, Betty Jo Shelby, was acquitted of first degree manslaughter the next year.
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In response, Crutcher founded the Terrence Crutcher Foundation to “change the narrative that perceive Black men as BAD DUDES and pipeline them into a ‘community of achievers’ through personal growth, education, and attainable resources,” according to the foundation’s website.
She has also been a proponent of passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has passed in the House and is currently being debated in the Senate.
“Failing to actively combat white supremacy and systemic racism in any form only perpetuates violence against Black and brown bodies,” Crutcher said. “My twin brother deserved better. Joshua Harvey and Joshua Barre deserved better. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean and far, far too many others deserved better.
“Unless we begin to reform this system and hold officers accountable who fail to serve and protect the very citizens they swear an oath to, we will never see progress,” she added.
Human Rights Watch has called Tulsa’s police practices “abusive” toward low-income and Black residents in a 2019 report. It highlighted how “Black people are subjected to physical force, including tasers, police dog bites, pepper spray, punches, and kicks, at a rate 2.7 times that of White people.”
Crutcher, whose great-grandmother Rebecca Brown Crutcher, survived the horrific 1921 assault, said the thriving community, whose residents were barely a generation removed from slavery, became a refuge for Black Americans fleeing the oppressive Jim Crow South.
“It was a place of prominence, culture, joy, innovation and pride,” she said.
But through her and groups of others involved in the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival, which takes place in Tulsa through June 19, the Greenwood District’s rich history is being reinvigorated.
The Origins of a Tragedy
Oil rich land purchased by Black entrepreneurs who then sold properties to Black business owners helped spur Greenwood’s growth. And with a dollar circulating dozens of times before leaving the wealthy community, even working-class Black residents were able to enjoy wages unavailable to them in most other places.
The land also provided opportunities for descendants of the Freedmen–people who were formerly enslaved by the five major indigenous tribal nations, according to Smithsonian Magazine and research by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
By 1921, Greenwood boasted Black doctors, lawyers, newspaper publishers, grocers, cleaners and numerous entrepreneurs who would be considered millionaires in today’s dollars, all occupying the wealthiest, most self-reliant Black community in the nation, a community that Booker T. Washington nicknamed “Negro Wall Street.”
But surrounding areas of whites, many of them poor, were triggered when rumors of a 19-year-old named Dick Rowland allegedly bumped into a young white woman named Sarah Page in an elevator in Tulsa’s Drexel Hotel, causing her to scream. A store clerk reported him for sexual assault and he was arrested the next day. A newspaper headline read that Rowland attacked her and tore the woman’s clothes, which incited mobs of whites who gathered at the courthouse where he was being held.
People in the Black community began fearing Rowland would be lynched and a group arrived at the courthouse. It is unclear who fired the first shot, but before long, a gunfight ensued, killing 12 people. That incited a large group, which included the Oklahoma National Guard and white civilians deputized by the local police force, to burn, bomb, loot and ransack the Greenwood District. Historians estimate the death toll to be as high as 300 people, but there has never been an official figure on the lives lost.
By June 1, more than 1,200 homes and 191 Black-owned businesses in a 35-square-block area were destroyed, and roughly 10,000 Black Tulsans were displaced. No one was ever held criminally accountable for what happened.
Despite the horror visited upon them, Crutcher said the community, unlike any other, remained a space of resilience and strength. The resilient spirit was so strong that directly after the massacre, when the city tried to pass zoning ordinances to prevent Greenwood residents from rebuilding, community leaders like B.C. Franklin sued the city from a Red Cross tent and won.
“The rubble was still smouldering as community leaders began to pick up the pieces of the epicenter of America’s Black wealth,” Crutcher said. “For generations, Tulsa’s Black community has worked relentlessly to rebuild and preserve the legacy of Black Wall Street.”
Seeking Restitution and Healing
Chief Egunwale Amusan is another descendant of massacre survivors and president of Tulsa’s African Ancestral Society. Amusan regularly gives tours of the Greenwood District and he also joined Crutcher at the congressional subcommittee hearing.
The purpose of his testimony to Congress was to, firstly, highlight the “compounded legacy of injustice” still taking place in Tulsa, Amusan said.
But survivors also want the nation to understand that reform on the community level is no substitute for direct reparations to massacre survivors and their descendants.
For Amusan, reparations for Greenwood survivors and descendants shouldn’t be any different from the restitution other groups have received from the United States government.
“When people say what does reparations look like to you,” Chief Amusan explained, “what did it look like for the Japanese? What did it look like for Rosewood [Florida]? What did it look like for Jews? I want all of it.”
Democratic Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson recently introduced the “Tulsa Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act” in Congress. It seeks to remove barriers to make it easier for survivors and descendants to sue for reparations.
It comes nearly two decades after a previous attempt to appeal to the Supreme Court for justice failed. Supporting the claim from Tulsa lawyers that the statute of limitations had run out, the Justices refused to take up the case. Johnson’s bill seeks to change that.
While the bill will almost certainly face steep opposition from Republicans, as a similar bill first introduced by the late Michigan Rep. John Conyers faced, calls for reparations have grown louder.
“Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to provide effective remedies for violations of human rights,” wrote Human Rights Watch researcher Dreisen Heath in a 2020 report. “The fact that a government abdicated its responsibility nearly 100 years ago and continued to do so in subsequent years does not absolve it of that responsibility today—especially when failure to address the harm and related action and inaction results in further harm, as it has in Tulsa.”
The report adds weight to the claims for restitution by the last known three living survivors of the massacre: Viola “Mother” Fletcher, 107, Leslie Benningfield “Mother” Randle, 106, and Hughes Van Ellis, 100. With the counsel of attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, the survivors have sued the city for the harm it caused and continues to perpetuate.
“They bombed us, they burnt us, they killed us,” Solomon-Simmons testified at the May 19 hearing. “They destroyed not just our property, not just our livelihood and our lives, but our legacy. Our generational wealth…They took that from us, and then they put in a system of policy violence that continues to this very day.”
Now, 100 years after the massacre, survivors worry the nation will focus on the city’s attempt to simmer down calls for reparations in favor of a museum sponsored by a state-appointed commission.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum has stated on multiple occasions his disapproval of reparations to survivors and their descendents. He and other officials, like Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, have instead emphasized “cultural tourism” and the high-profile celebratory events sponsored by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.
While the commission has raised more than $30 million, with $20 million going into the construction of the “Greenwood Rising” history center, none of the survivors or descendants have seen a dime of the funds. The commission even excluded survivors and descendants from participating in the years-long planning process of the 100-year commemoration, according to emails shared with reporters at a press conference on May 11 at the Greenwood Cultural Center.
In a recent report critical of the commission, Human Rights Watch claimed the commission was alienating survivors.
“Creating a museum to showcase victims’ experiences can be part of reparations,” said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “But when it’s done in lieu of or at the expense of other types of necessary repair, and without properly consulting the survivors or the descendants it can be very damaging.”
Deon Osborne is an Associate Editor for The Black Wall Street Times in Tulsa, Okla.