Viola Ford Fletcher and her family fled a murderous white mob 102 years ago – today she’s still demanding accountability.
Viola Ford Fletcher smiles as her mind burrows back in time more than a hundred years. “We were happy then,” she says wistfully. “Before this happened, we had children in the neighbourhood to play with. We had schools, churches, hospitals, theatres and anything that people enjoyed. It was a strong community.”
“This” refers to the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, when a white mob descended on the neighbourhood of Greenwood, home to a business district known as Black Wall Street, killing an estimated 300 people and looting and burning businesses and homes. Thousands were left homeless and living in a hastily constructed internment camp.
For most Americans it is the stuff of history books and museum exhibits, as foreign and faraway as Charles Lindbergh or the Wall Street crash. For Fletcher, it is a childhood scar that never went away.
Now 109 and still dressing to the nines with earrings and bracelets, she is the oldest living survivor of the massacre. In 2021, the year of its centenary, “Mother Fletcher” and her brother, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis, testified to the US Congress to push for reparations and travelled to Ghana, where they were treated like royalty.
Now Fletcher is thought to have become the world’s oldest author with Don’t Let Them Bury My Story, a memoir that recounts the impact of the massacre on her life and advocates for racial justice. “I’ve enjoyed life so far, so I think if I can do it at this time, I should,” she says.
I remember seeing people running and being shot, falling dead, houses burning and noise — Viola Ford Fletcher
Her debut book tour took her to New York for the first time (“I think all the people in the United States is in New York!”) and then on an Amtrak train for the first time (“That was really history for me, I thought it was very nice”) to Washington, where on Juneteenth she is resplendent in white and speaking to the Guardian from a wheelchair in the cavernous atrium of a business hotel.
She is joined by an attentive grandson, Ike Howard, 56, chief foundation officer of the Viola Ford Fletcher Foundation, which operates in the US and Ghana. His “constant prodding” persuaded Fletcher to overcome her fears and tell her story, he says, and they wrote the book together with Van Ellis, now 102, contributing a foreword.
Fletcher was born before the first world war on 5 May 1914 in Comanche, Oklahoma. Her parents were sharecroppers before moving to the prosperous Greenwood neighbourhood of Tulsa. On the night of 31 May 1921, she was a carefree seven-year-old girl with a favourite toy – a rag doll – and future full of possibilities. Then she was woken by her family and told they had to leave at once.
She recalls: “I remember seeing people running and being shot, falling dead, houses burning and noise – guns shooting. We were advised to get out of town before we were all killed. So my mother and father gathered six children and we were loaded into a horse-drawn cart and we got out of town safely.”
There are some things that time doesn’t heal, at least not completely. More than a century later, Fletcher speaks about living through the massacre every day and not being able to sleep at night. Howard explains: “At midnight, she’s awake. Three o’clock in the morning, she’s awake. She goes to sleep when the sun is high in the sky.”
The family was forced to move from farm to farm and Fletcher lost her chance at education beyond the fourth grade. She recalls: “They would sharecrop. We wasn’t able to go to school. The days we should be in school was time to harvest a crop or something. The family kept moving from one neighbourhood to another. I didn’t know where we were going. Being a child, they didn’t tell us everything. We had to follow.”
Fletcher married her husband, Robert, in 1932 and moved to California to work as an assistant welder in the shipyards during the second world war. “During the war time, when my brothers were in service, I worked at a shipyard and helped build ships. I worked there until the war was over.”
Later she and Robert returned to Oklahoma, where Fletcher became a domestic worker serving white families (she did not retire until was 85). She gave birth to two sons and a daughter and now has more than 20 great-grandchildren. Her life has spanned a century of civil rights struggles, with all their victories and setbacks.
Fletcher was 94, for example, when Barack Obama was elected the US’s first Black president. She recalls: “It was wonderful to see that. Before then I probably didn’t notice about the presidents and all of that. I should know all the presidents but I don’t. But with that one I naturally learned that this was our first.”
Two years ago Fletcher travelled to Washington for the first time to ask that her country acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921. She testified to a House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee considering legal remedies and received a standing ovation. She laughs: “I enjoyed it. There were portions I didn’t quite understand but I guess I said something that they wanted to hear.”
There has never been any direct compensation from the city of Tulsa or the state of Oklahoma for massacre survivors or their descendants. Racial disparities, compounded by gentrification and urban planning, persist in Tulsa today.
Last year a judge in Oklahoma issued an order allowing Fletcher, Van Ellis and another survivor, Lessie Benningfield Randle, to continue seeking damages under state nuisance laws. The lawsuit argues that, in the years after the massacre, city and county officials actively thwarted the community’s effort to rebuild in favour of overwhelmingly white parts of Tulsa.
Let us have our day in court. If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. But at least the situation will be reconciled to some degree — Viola Ford Fletcher’s grandson Ike Howard
Howard, sporting a colourful T-shirt and gold chain necklace, comments: “Now the court case hangs in the balance because the judge hasn’t given us a decision. On her 109th birthday we were in court. I don’t think the judge knew that it was her birthday but you would take that personal: they burn down your house, they run you out of town, then they have a court date on your 109th birthday.
“It makes it feel like they’re waiting for you to die so the case can just go away. We’re stronger together so it would be wise just to go ahead. Let us have our day in court. If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. If we settle, we settle. But at least the situation will be reconciled to some degree.”
Also in 2021, Fletcher made her first trip to Africa. She and her brother met the Ghanaian president, Nana Akufo-Addo, as well as the vice-president, three kings and a group of ambassadors. They were granted royal Ghanaian names and subsequently citizenship. She says: “I was looking to see who could be some of our ancestors.”
Fletcher, who still lives in Tulsa, and her brother, based in Denver, Colorado, make a formidable team. Van Ellis, who served in an all-Black battalion during the second world war, has been at her side throughout the book tour. Wearing a grey suit with blue pinstripes and an “Army veteran 1939-1945” cap, he comments: “We always stuck together. You have a family and you stick together, you can always make it through.
“She and I went through all this. We went through 1921: I was only five months old: that was a bombing. I served in the United States army: that was a bombing. I was in the 234th AAA gun battalion down in Burma. I survived that bombing so I would call myself blessed.”
But like his sister, Van Ellis was robbed of school and career opportunities by the massacre; he has previously said his family were “made refugees in our own country”. He eventually became a handyman in Oklahoma City, working odd jobs in construction and as a painter and plumber.
He reflects: “If I had lived in Tulsa I would probably had a chance to get a good education and a decent job. But we had to work from sunup to sundown to make a living and feed our families.”
For decades, Van Ellis recalls, the massacre was a taboo subject in Tulsa, unspoken by neighbours, untaught in schools and uncommemorated by any memorial. “We were taught not to talk about it. They said, ‘Don’t talk about it. If you talk about it, your family is liable to get killed. Your dogs, your cats.’ You could not talk about. I don’t know why but that’s what they said. ‘Don’t talk about it.’”
He was relieved when the conspiracy of silence came to an end and the city began to confront its past, including a search for the unmarked mass graves of victims and visit by Joe Biden for the centenary. “You have to live. You can’t stop. You have to keep going ahead. Do your best in the world,” Van Ellis says.
Having fought for the US overseas, he hopes the book will play at part in achieving justice at home after all these years. “This is a new world to me – I didn’t think it would ever happen. It’s exciting and it’s history. Let the world know. It’s been 102 years so I’m proud I’m living to tell about it.”
Van Ellis, who has seven children, 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, remains cautiously optimistic about the future of the country he served. “I saw little changes but it could be better. I saw some changes and I think I’m going to get better. I love America and I love people in America.”
And he fully intends to live for another 28 years. His secret? Spinach. Van Ellis, a palpably indomitable spirit, paraphrases: “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man / I’ll eat my spinach and fight to the finish / I’m Popeye the Sailor Man!”
Source: The Guardian