All eyes are on Tulsa, Oklahoma, this week as the nation remembers the tragic events of May 31 to June 1, 1921, when a White mob killed some 300 Black residents and looted the community known as “Black Wall Street” before burning it to the ground.
The official agenda put forth by the city’s Centennial Commission offered a slew of redeeming events, including a candlelight vigil, an economic empowerment day featuring actor and author Hill Harper, and a day of learning with scholar Cornel West.
But all is not as it seems on this centennial anniversary. In the midst of dozens of advertised events and a slew of legislative, celebrity, and corporate endorsements, a more troubling story has unfolded behind the scenes.
This cease-and-desist letter from one of the survivors to the commission says it all:
Further, you are aware that the Commission refused to meet with Mother Randle and her representatives despite repeated requests for meetings and dialogue. You are also aware that the Commission rejected Mother Randle’s request that the Commission utilize some of the $30M the Commission raised “leveraging the rich history of the Tulsa Race Massacre” and/or revenue generated by the Rising museum to directly benefit the living survivors and descendants of those who suffered because of the Massacre
The commission, formed by the City of Tulsa in 2016, was created to begin the work of healing the community and repairing the damage done to North Tulsa residents. The organization and its highly organized publicity machine raised funds for Greenwood Rising, a 7,000-square-foot, $31-million museum that is now nearly complete. It launched arts and scholarship programs and promised to revitalize the North Tulsa community—all efforts that, at least on the surface, seemed laudable.
Yet no one offered any sort of reparations to the survivors: the before-mentioned Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106; Viola Fletcher, 107; and Hughes Van Ellis Sr., 100. Even when overtures were made by the survivors to meet with commission organizers, they were met with silence. Instead, the commission controlled the narrative—fundraising and publicizing the centennial as a tourist attraction and resulting in what some are calling a “Disneyland experience of the massacre.”
Randle’s attorneys said the next step was sending a cease-and-desist letter to the commission urging it to stop using her story and photographs without her consent.
The Centennial Commission is not to be confused with the Justice for Greenwood Foundation group, which represents survivors and descendants and is sponsoring the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival, which runs through June 19. That event is separate from the commission. On its website, the festival claims the historic Greenwood District as its own, calling it “our legacy” and celebrating movements and events like Black Lives Matter and Juneteenth.
In May, Tulsa native Damario Solomon-Simmons offered emotional testimony before a House judiciary subcommittee decrying the “cultural tourism” propagated by the commission. Solomon-Simmons is also the lead attorney in a lawsuit related to the memory of the massacre.
“Right now, as I speak,” he said, “the same perpetrators of the massacre — the city, the county, the chamber, the state — are utilizing the massacre to pad their own pockets. They’re utilizing the branding … the narrative, the names and the likenesses of people who suffered, who died, who were treated as refugees, who lived in internment camps for 18 months. … Not one penny has been given to any of the survivors.”
This played out in real time this past weekend in Tulsa.
“It’s not the unifying ‘Kumbaya’ moment that the city is looking for,” says Michael Swartz of Schulte Roth & Zabel, who serves as co-lead counsel for the lawsuit with Solomon-Simmons.
Swartz says that the commission was formed by “the city and the power structure.” Meanwhile, some of its members are filing motions to dismiss the lawsuit brought by survivors and descendants, and the city has also denied access to public records that contain the true history of the massacre.
“Our clients are really, really upset by the city sort of monetizing and appropriating their pain, suffering, and experience for their own benefit,” says Swartz.
On May 21, in anticipation of the centennial, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the tensions between the commission and the community. It describes how Jamaal Dyer, a Tulsa pastor whose family owned a funeral home in Greenwood for 50 years, was recruited in 2017 to serve as the commission’s project manager. After his repeated suggestions to involve survivors, descendants, and the community went unheeded, however, he resigned in 2019.
Stunningly, when asked what the commission had done to honor survivors and descendants, its website initially offered nothing more than this bare-boned statement, according to the report: “The Greenwood Rising creative team read survivor testimonials and listened to recordings of survivor interviews to inform the exhibits that will educate present and future generations.”
The page was later amended to say, “The Centennial Commission reached out to and included key Greenwood District organizations — The Greenwood Cultural Center, the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, and the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation — as well as numerous other Greenwood leaders and community members.”
However, attorneys for the survivors and descendants reiterated in an email response this week that “the leadership of the Commission is predominantly white and many are not in touch with or native to the North Tulsa community. Prominent leaders in Greenwood, including Massacre survivors and descendants, were excluded from the process through which Greenwood Rising was created and curated.”
The commission did not immediately respond to a written request for comment from ZORA, and the public phone number listed for the organization is out of service. Its website states that the commission has “limited capacity” to fulfill interview requests made after May 21.
“It’s been really outrageous,” says Swartz. “A lot of well-meaning funders … are realizing that there’s this other group that feels disenfranchised.”
Some reconsidered their involvement, he says, “because they’re dealing with a publicity issue as the national and international press are descending on Tulsa.”
In fact, last week the commission abruptly announced that Rise & Remember, a previously sold-out event featuring Grammy-Award-winning singer John Legend and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, was canceled, citing “unexpected circumstances with entertainers and speakers” in a statement.
In reality, negotiations between attorneys for the survivors and the commission have been tense for months.
In emails shared with this reporter, attorneys for the survivors and descendants recently sent a detailed list of requests to the commission that included suggestions on equitably sharing the wealth from a revitalized Greenwood. In addition to a request for $1 million for each of the three survivors and a $50 million donation for a fund for descendants, they also asked that additional board members from the community be appointed and that the committee dedicate 33% of revenue from Greenwood Rising “to directly benefit survivors and descendants and the North Tulsa community.”
Millions have already been promised from banks, corporations, and private donors in the name of the massacre. In 2019, for example, Bloomberg Philanthropies offered $1 million to the City of Tulsa for a public art project. Just last week, the commission’s website included a photograph boasting a $500,000 commitment from Boeing. The image has since been taken down.
The community once housed doctors, educators, lawyers, newspaper publishers, and movie theater and hotel owners and is said to have been home to as many as 10 Black millionaires at the time of the massacre. Today, “there’s no hospital in North Tulsa,” says McKenzie Haynes, an associate counsel for the survivors. “There’s only now a grocery store. And that just happened last week.”
Meanwhile, the three survivors live in poverty.
In her congressional testimony, Viola Fletcher, 107, described going to bed on the night of May 1, 1921, in her family home where she lived with her parents and five siblings.
“The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich, not just in terms of wealth but in culture, eminency [sic], and heritage. My family had a beautiful home. We had great neighbors and I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future ahead of me. … Within a few hours, all of that was gone.”
Fletcher said that she didn’t attend school past the fourth grade after the massacre. As an adult, she worked as a “domestic” cleaning homes for White people. To this day, she said, she can still see Black men being shot and killed; Black bodies piled high as her family attempted their escape. For 100 years, she has relived that trauma.
“We have to keep the spotlight on this community,” says Haynes. “We have to keep the spotlight on the gaslighting. Because there’s a motive here. The motive has been to sweep this under the rug. Pretend like it didn’t happen.”
“But if the people who’ve been harmed have not received justice, then what is this?” she adds.