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"I have lived through the massacre every day": Tulsa race massacre survivors testify before House committee

Survivor testifies on Tulsa race massacre
107-year-old survivor of Tulsa race massacre testifies in Congress 01:31

Washington — The last known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre are calling on Congress to consider paying reparations for the continued damage done to their Oklahoma community.  

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties on Wednesday heard testimony from three centenarians about a violent mob's riot 100 years ago through  the thriving Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, known at the time as "Black Wall Street." 

"I still see Black men being shot, black bodies lying in 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," said Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the event. "I have lived through the massacre every day." 

Although the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics originally recorded only 36 deaths after the event, a 2001 state commission estimated the number to be between 75 and 300.  

Oldest survivor of Tulsa race massacre testifies before House committee: "I have lived through the massacre every day" 07:32

That 2001 commission recommended that reparations be paid to the Greenwood community, but 20 years later, survivors of the massacre and their descendants have not received any direct compensation for the event's effect on their lives.

"I have survived 100 years of painful memories and losses," said Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of the survivors. "I have survived to tell this story. I believe that I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully, now you all will listen to us while we are still here."

The three remaining survivors are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the city and county of Tulsa last year that seeks reparations for the event. Joining them in the suit are descendants of other survivors, Vernon AME Church and the Tulsa African Ancestral Society.

The House Judiciary Committee last month approved legislation that would create a commission to broadly study the potential measure of paying reparations to some African Americans. In addition to a panel with three survivors of the massacre, several experts on the event and human rights activists discussed the call for reparations at the subcommittee hearing Wednesday. 

"There is a clear call for what's right and what's just, and that call is for comprehensive reparations determined by impacted community members at all levels for which harm has occurred," said Dreisen Heath, a researcher and advocate for the Human Rights Watch. "Tulsa's black community is not celebrating the centennial of the massacre. They are mourning the loss of their community, and the loss of opportunity."

Tulsa pastor on 1921 race massacre: "I really do believe justice will be served" 04:13

Opponents of reparations for the Tulsa Race Massacre argue that the majority of the perpetrators and victims are no longer alive. But Eric Miller, a law school professor representing the victims, said such observations are irrelevant to the conversation. 

"My response is that we can still see the ongoing harms of the Tulsa Race Massacre to this day," he said." All the families lost all their property in the massacre … and when people did build back, the city continued to target Greenwood for racially divisive urban development, driving a freeway through the middle of the community, splitting the community apart from the rest of Tulsa."  

The massacre, which will reach its 100th anniversary on May 31, has garnered increased attention in recent years. At least 10 bodies possibly linked to it were found in a mass grave last fall as archaeologists searched for the remains of potential victims. The event, which has often been ignored by history books, has also gotten attention in pop culture, being recreated in the recent HBO series "Watchmen" and "Lovecraft County."

"Sadly, many Americans today are not even aware that this massacre took place, and I hope that this hearing can serve to educate the public about what happened," said Representative Steve Cohen, chair of the subcommittee. 

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