This year marks the 102nd anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and it includes the harrowing story of the oldest living survivor, Viola Fletcher, who recently turned 109 years old.
“Mother Fletcher,” as she’s affectionately known, has written a memoir titled Don’t Let Them Bury My Story: The Oldest Living Survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Her Own Words. In it, she recounts her journey from being a terrified 7-year-old girl forced to escape her burning neighborhood of Greenwood to testifying before Congress to ensure justice for the victims of the massacre. It was one of the bloodiest racial attacks ever in United States history.
On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a Black teenage shoeshine boy, was arrested and charged for assaulting a white elevator operator named Sarah Page in the elevator of a building in downtown Tulsa. The next day, the newspaper printed a story saying that Rowland had tried to rape Page, with an accompanying editorial stating that a lynching was planned for that night. That evening, mobs of both Blacks and whites appeared at the courthouse where Rowland was being held. A confrontation took place that resulted in the death of a white protester. The Tulsa massacre was consequently ignited.
Beginning May 31 and lasting for two days, the massacre left as many as 300 people dead, mostly Black people, and destroyed Tulsa’s prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood known as “Black Wall Street.” More than 35 blocks of Black homes and businesses were burned to the ground, nearly 10,000 people were left homeless, and the rampage caused more than $2 million in damage. Despite how devastating this event was, it had been barely mentioned in the history books until a state commission was formed to document the incident in the late 1990s.
The consensus later was that whatever happened between Rowland and Page in that elevator was harmless. Perhaps Rowland accidentally stepped on Page’s foot or bumped into her when the elevator shifted from one floor to the next. At that time, simply daring to smile at a white woman could get a Black male killed.
Mother Fletcher was the second oldest of eight children. Her younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, was a newborn at the time of the massacre, and as of 2021 was 100 years old. The house they grew up in had no electricity. On the night of the massacre, Fletcher was in bed asleep; her mother woke the family and they fled for their lives. Due to uncontrollable circumstances after the massacre, the family lost everything but the clothes they were wearing. Fletcher left school after the 4th grade. In 1932, she married Robert Fletcher. They moved to California during World War II to work in the shipyards, where she was an assistant welder. After the war, the couple settled in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to raise their three children, and Fletcher eventually retired from work at age 85.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been forced to confront inescapable facts of past and present racism. W. E. B. Du Bois predicted in 1903 that the issue of the 20th century would be “the problem of the color line.” He has been proven right many times over.
The Tulsa Race Massacre is a stark reminder of how white fear can run so deep that it can destroy Black legacies and inheritances when there’s disruption of that color line Du Bois spoke of. For Black people in 1921, their families passed down something else from one generation to the next: the mental and emotional stress that results from the constant threat of white violence and financial insecurity. In a matter of two days, everything the thriving Greenwood community had built was gone. More importantly, every dream, goal, and plan its residents had for that community was destroyed as well.
Many people were introduced to the Tulsa Race Massacre by HBO’s Watchmen in 2019. The very first episode of the series opens with a depiction of the horrific events, showing a Black World War I veteran trying to protect his wife and son as they escape the attack on Black Wall Street. What I appreciated about this was that they didn’t sugarcoat what happened. They showed Tulsa’s Black residents being hunted and their homes and businesses being burned down, as well as airplanes flying over the city to drop bombs.
HBO continued the history lesson in 2020 with Lovecraft Country. During the ninth episode, titled “Rewind 1921,” the show’s main characters travel back in time to Tulsa to recover pages of a book needed to save another character’s life after she was cursed. They arrive in Greenwood during the massacre. The episode shows the reality of white mobs killing Black residents and burning down homes and businesses.
It is believed that the hundreds of people who were killed are buried in mass graves. Experts have been searching local cemeteries for victims of the massacre. Today, Greenwood, like so many once-prosperous Black areas, remains severely economically depressed.
In her testimony to Congress, Mother Fletcher described what Greenwood meant to its residents and detailed how she lives with the memories every day. “Our country may forget this history, but I cannot, I will not, and other survivors do not, and our descendants do not.”
As many Americans will soon prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July, it shouldn’t be lost on us that not every part of our history has been worth celebrating. It’s difficult to learn about the massacre and even see it being depicted on-screen without being deeply moved by it. It’s a story of so much pain brought by the hands of racists. It’s not a feel-good story. Mother Fletcher lived it, but her story is one of triumph. She gives true meaning to the idea of the strong Black woman and is continuing to fight for justice every step of the way.
Mother Fletcher’s book, Don’t Let Them Bury My Story, will be available July 4, 2023.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.