One hundred years ago, “Black Wall Street” was reduced to ashes

At 107, this African-American is one of the last survivors of what is considered one of the worst racial massacres in American history, which took place between May 31 and June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, in Oklahoma.

We lost everything that day. Our lives, our homes, our churches, our newspapers, our theaters. Greenwood represented all that was best in possibilities for African Americans.

A quote from:Viola Fletcher, survivor of the Tulsa massacre.

Hugues Van Ellis, 100, Lessie Beningfield Randel, 106, and Viola Fletcher, 107, are the last known survivors of the Tulsa massacre.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Raphaël Bouvier-Auclair

At the start of the 20th century, in the midst of the oil boom, the African-American neighborhood of Greenwood had nothing to envy to other areas of Tulsa, quite the contrary.

Hotel, theater, doctor’s and law firm: with its nearly 200 shops, the district has even earned the name of ” Black Wall Street ».

Everything would change from May 30, 1921.

That day, a young African American, who would later be exonerated, was arrested after a complaint was made by a young white woman who operated an elevator he used.

The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa had many businesses before the 1921 massacre.

Photo: Courtesy Smithsonian

Faced with the threat of the young man being lynched by a white mob, a group of African Americans, some of whom were armed World War I veterans, showed up near the prison where he was being held. The tension rose, then a shot was fired.

In the hours that followed, white residents of Tulsa, aided by the authorities, rushed to the prosperous neighborhood of Greenwood, which was attacked, vandalized, and ultimately reduced to ashes.

People came with submachine guns. There were hundreds of deaths, tells us historian John Franklin, whose grandfather BC Franklin, a survivor of the massacre, lost his law firm in 1921.

In addition to the destruction by fire and bullets, bombs were thrown at the neighborhood by private planes, according to the public commission which looked into the drama.

Remains of buildings in ashes.

More than 1,200 buildings were burnt down during the Tulsa massacre in 1921.

Photo: via reuters / American Red Cross / Library of Congress.

The toll is heavy: at least 300 people killed, 1,256 buildings burned and 215 houses vandalized, according to information from the Red Cross.

To date, no one has been formally accused in connection with this massacre.

When I showed these images in Switzerland a few years ago, people thought it was Europe after WWII. I said: “no, I’m sorry, it was the United States in 1921”.

A quote from:John Franklin, historian and descendant of a survivor of the Tulsa massacre

Reconstruction and repairs

As a lawyer, John Franklin’s grandfather led the fight to help survivors of the massacre, many of whom had lost everything, to rebuild their homes.

A task far from simple, especially since the State demanded that the new buildings be rebuilt with fire-resistant materials, and therefore much more expensive.

While some Greenwood residents remained, many, traumatized, left Tulsa for other parts of the country.

Historian John Franklin presents a photo of his grandfather.

Historian John Franklin’s grandfather, BC Franklin, survived the Tulsa Massacre.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Raphaël Bouvier-Auclair

The neighborhood has never aroused again the same enthusiasm, explains historian John Franklin.

Today, this sector, located a few blocks from downtown Tulsa, is once again dynamic, as evidenced by the cranes that hover over new construction of condos and office buildings.

But several descendants of residents who contributed to the wealth of the neighborhood a hundred years ago lament not benefiting from the gentrification of Greenwood.

Construction sites near the Greenwood district, in Tulsa

There are many construction sites around the Greenwood district in Tulsa.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Raphaël Bouvier-Auclair

There is a generational wealth that has been lost, says Nehemiah Frank, whose ancestors owned a sewing store that was destroyed between May 31 and June 1, 1921.

The young man is campaigning for financial compensation to be granted to the three survivors and the descendants of the victims of the tragedy, which, according to him, could help reduce racial inequalities.

Many people would like the 100th anniversary to be a unifying event, but it is not, since the compensation has not been paid.

A quote from:Nehemiah Frank, descendant of victims of the Greenwood massacre.
Portrait de Nehemiah Frank.

Nehemiah Frank, whose ancestors lost their business during the massacre, is demanding compensation for survivors and descendants.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Raphael Bouvier-Auclair

Such financial compensation was recommended by the commission mandated by Oklahoma to reverse the 2001 massacre.

But the idea never materialized and even today the last three known survivors, aged 100, 106 and 107, are fighting in court to obtain these reparations.

A story still incomplete

Historian John Franklin doubts the political appetite for possible compensation.

In his view, the way to “raise awareness and educate the public” is to talk about the tragedy, which for a long time received very little mention in history books and classrooms.

The African-American expert recalls that, a hundred years later, all the light has not yet been shed on the tragedy experienced by his grandfather and so many other residents of Greenwood.

A rescued person and burning buildings are painted on a wall.

A mural reflecting on the 1921 massacre in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Raphaël Bouvier-Auclair

We have enough evidence, since we interviewed the people who survived. The only thing we don’t know is why did the whites destroy everything? We do not have any interviews with the people who set the fire. These people have remained anonymous, he laments.

One hundred years after the two days that would change their lives, the last three known survivors, Viola Fletcher, Lessie Beningfield Randel and Hughes Van Ellis, want to ensure, by increasing the number of public appearances, that the story of the massacre is shared.

In a country where racial tensions are still rife, Hughes Van Ellis, who served in the military, believes his story must come with a message.

We are only one country. Only one. Do not forget it, he said.

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