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The oldest known survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre says reparations are owed

Viola Fletcher, 109, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at Lovejoy Library in Edwardsville. Fletcher is the oldest survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Viola Fletcher, 109, poses for a portrait with her book "Don't Let Them Bury My Story" in hand on Tuesday at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Lovejoy Library in Edwardsville. Fletcher is the oldest living survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Viola Fletcher is adorned in gold jewelry and dressed in a black-and-white printed dress with a tan blazer on top. Her lips are painted maroon, and her silver hair is waved on her head. Her appearance is always a shock, because she is 109 years old. To many, her looks do not reflect what she has been through.

“People [white mobs] there were destroying things in the city like burning houses and everything on the street,” said Fletcher, who revisited her experience during the Tulsa Race Massacre on Tuesday during a talk in Edwardsville. “I was out there with a family of six — mother, father and six children — and of course we escaped. We heard ‘get out of town, they were killing all the Black people,’ so my parents did.”

On May 31,1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, white racist mobs came through Greenwood, the once-thriving Black business district, and burned companies and the surrounding neighborhoods to the ground. Scores of Black Tulsans were killed, and many lost businesses, homes and family members over the span of 18 hours of violence between May 31 through June 1.

“You could see people falling from being shot and killed … and you could hear guns being shot,” Fletcher said. “Oh, it was just terrible.”

Her parents loaded the family in a wagon and left for Claremore, Oklahoma, which is about 30 minutes east of Tulsa.

One hundred and three years later, Fletcher, who is affectionately known as Mother Fletcher, is still traumatized by the terror she faced at the age of 7. She has nightmares of the evening her parents woke her up to flee. She also experiences insomnia. The centenarian is the oldest known living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre. She spoke vividly Tuesday at Southern University Illinois Edwardsville about life in Tulsa before and after the violent attacks occurred.

In the early to mid-1900s, many race massacres, in which racist white mobs attacked and killed Black people, occurred across the country. Entire communities were wiped out, and surviving families were forced to relocate to other cities and states.

In July 1917, a number of Black people in East St. Louis, Illinois, died in a race massacre. It was one of the most violent racial attacks of that century. At the time, white labor union workers were striking for higher wages, and during the strike, owners brought in Black workers as strikebreakers.

Historians say this is one of the reasons why there was a series of massacres and riots attempted throughout the country during the 1900s. The recent police killings and violence against Black people is not surprising, because they are a part of the continuum of American history, said Bryan Jack, a history professor at SIUE.

“It's oftentimes this combination of racialized space, through housing segregation, through redlining … and this idea of controlling Black bodies or controlling Black movement,” Jack said.

He said there were similarities among many of the race massacres, however; the East St. Louis and Tulsa massacres were not anomalies.

“It's part of this larger pattern, and when you look throughout American history, both going backwards for “Red Summer” but also forward, you see violence against Black people, whether it's Trayvon Martin, George Floyd or an enslaved person,” Jack said. “It comes down to upholding white supremacy through violence. It's what we see in all these cases.”

Survivors of the early 1900s deadly race massacres never received reparations or any recourse for the damage and destruction white mobs did to their communities.

“Mother Viola Fletcher is so important because people try to talk about ‘this was so long ago’, while she's still alive,” Jack said. “She's 109, but she remembers it.”

Fletcher continues to pursue justice by talking about her life through her memoir “Don’t Let Them Bury My Story.” She also testified to Congress in 2021 about the trauma she suffered in Tulsa, what she witnessed over a hundred years ago and the generational wealth families like hers lost during the massacre.

Many survivors of the Tulsa attacks did not speak of the race massacre outside of their families because they were afraid that white mobs would attack them again. Fletcher is making noise now because she does not want the Greenwood community’s stories to go untold, and she hopes it could be a driving force toward reparations for her family and other descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Fletcher still resides in Tulsa, and her family frequents the revitalized Greenwood area. She is afraid at times while riding through her old community, but she relies on the support of her family to keep her mentally and emotionally safe while eating at restaurants and supporting businesses in the community.

“They lost everything,” she said. “[Reparations] could help the grandchildren and the younger generation that come back.”

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.