At Tulsa massacre’s centennial, two Oklahoma churches focus on racial unity
BROKEN ARROW, Okla. — At the 100th anniversary of the…
TULSA, Okla. — Two weeks after her 107th birthday, Viola Fletcher traveled to Washington, D.C., this month to tell a congressional subcommittee what happened to her as a little girl.
Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, described falling asleep in her family’s home in the Greenwood District — an affluent African American community known as “Black Wall Street.”
But the night of May 31, 1921, her peaceful slumber was cut short.
“I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home,” Fletcher said in her first-ever visit to the nation’s capital. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still see smoke and smell fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.”
Even 100 years later, Fletcher said, she still has not seen justice in an atrocity that claimed as many as 300 lives and destroyed thousands of homes, businesses and churches.
“I pray that one day I will,” she said.
State Rep. Regina Goodwin, a Democrat from Tulsa and a longtime member of Churches of Christ, testified via video at the same hearing as Fletcher and two other survivors: 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle and 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis, Fletcher’s brother.
“I have the pleasure of knowing these folks and knowing that they are indeed deserving of justice,” said Goodwin, whose late grandfather and great-grandparents lived through the massacre.
Two of the leading voices raising awareness about the massacre both attend the North Peoria Church of Christ, a predominantly Black congregation near the Greenwood area.
Besides Goodwin, North Peoria is the home congregation of state Sen. Kevin Matthews, a fellow Democrat who is the founder and chairman of the 1921 Centennial Commission.
That commission is spearheading events to commemorate the massacre’s centennial and has raised about $30 million for projects such as the Greenwood Rising history center that will be unveiled next week. (Those projects are not without controversy. Some survivors, including Fletcher, would prefer to see funds go to victims, not buildings.)
In interviews with The Christian Chronicle, both Goodwin, 58, and Matthews, 61, discussed the role of faith in their advocacy.
“Faith tells us that we’ve got a God who is in control of all the madness,” Goodwin said. “So when we can’t figure it out, when we can’t correct the wrongs, God ultimately is going to have the final say. Now, I believe that with all my heart.”
At the same time, she said, “God gives us the spirit that we need to fight the battles here on earth, so much so that he says, ‘Do right by me, and I’ll fight your battles for you, but I need you to be on the field.’ So, we’ve got to continue to get out on the field.”
For his part, Matthews said that raising millions of dollars for the centennial “was a task that only God could make happen.”
“One of the things that I believe as a man of faith is that we should sit down, brother to brother, brother to sister, sister to sister, and talk about issues, tough issues, and pray about them and come up with a resolution,” he said.
“Sadly enough, over the last few years, we have had so much racial division, spiritual division, political division,” he added. “So we’re hoping that building this history center and people going through it … will provide a place to reflect, pray, discuss and talk about how we can handle our problems better.”
Warren G. Blakney Sr., the 500-member North Peoria church’s senior minister, has fought for racial equality since 1961. At age 9, he met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and passed out voter registration handbills door to door.
Blakney said he had heard about the massacre before moving to Tulsa in 1996, but he did not know much about it.
As his congregation resumes in-person worship June 6, he expects to ask both Matthews and Goodwin to say a few words about the centennial.
“I think this is a time for reconciliation,” said Blakney, who has served as president of both the Tulsa Urban League and the local NAACP. “I don’t just mean as African Americans, but as people in general, we need to realize we’re standing on common ground. And we really need … to treat each other as God would have us to treat each other.”
The events of May 31-June 1, 1921, remain a mystery to many Americans.
For decades, Tulsa — and the nation — acted as if the massacre never occurred.
But growing up on historic Greenwood Avenue, Goodwin learned the details from an early age.
Her grandfather Edward Goodwin Sr. was a high school senior in 1921. He survived along with his parents, James Henri and Carlie Marie Goodwin, and his sister, Anna.
The lawmaker’s grandmother Jeanne Goodwin did not experience the massacre, but she had a book about it locked in her chest.
She let Regina read it.
In “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” privately published in 1922, the late Mary Elizabeth Jones Parrish offered eyewitness accounts and chronicled her own experience fleeing the violence with her daughter. (This month, Trinity University Press reissued the book to a wide audience for the first time. It’s now entitled “The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921” and features an afterword by Parrish’s great-granddaughter Anneliese M. Bruner.)
“What I’ve been told is that there was a conspiracy of silence and that many White people who had committed these crimes did not want it to be discussed,” Rep. Goodwin told the Chronicle.
“And understand this: If you were a Black person in that day who witnessed the massacre, if you had watched people burned to death and bombed, and you survived and saw that no one was being charged, who were you going to turn to? Who were you going to tell?
“So I think for Black folks in particular, being quiet was a matter of survival, and White folks who knew folks who perhaps had committed murder, they weren’t talking about it either.”
But Goodwin stressed that not all White people endorsed the violence.
“When one wicked White man would set a house on fire, there might be a good White man who would go and put out that fire for his Black neighbor,” she said. “I know of those stories, too.”
For a long time, the massacre was known as the Tulsa Race Riot.
Few insurance claims were paid because most policies excluded riot damage from coverage, according to the Tulsa World.
A lawsuit filed last year calls for the city of Tulsa and other defendants to pay reparations to relatives of victims and survivors of the massacre, as noted by Religion News Service. The plaintiffs include the three survivors who spoke at the congressional hearing.
In her testimony, Goodwin said her relatives, who owned 14 destroyed rental properties, went to the courthouse seeking damages in 1921.
“The statute of limitations had not expired,” Goodwin said at the hearing. “My great-grandmother talked of silverware and her linen, and she talked about her feather mattresses, and she talked about the piano — destroyed. She talked about the books in her library — gone.
“And she had the courage when murderers were still walking the streets of Greenwood … to say, ‘You took from me what was mine.’”
But she was rejected outright.
“Reparations are due. The harm is ongoing,” Goodwin said, citing lingering discrepancies in housing, employment and criminal justice.
In her Chronicle interview, the Christian lawmaker urged fellow believers to contemplate a question: “If this had happened to your family, how long would you wait for your justice?”
Unlike Goodwin, Matthews — a fellow native Tulsan — said he never learned about the massacre at home or school.
The future state senator was in his 30s when a great-uncle from California came to Oklahoma for a class reunion.
“He gave me a VHS tape that told the story, and I thought it was like a fictional television show,” said Matthews, who retired as a Tulsa administrative fire chief before seeking public office. “I couldn’t believe it really happened in Tulsa. I was amazed and shocked.”
From the editor: About our recent coverage of racial issues in Churches of Christ
Five and a half years ago, concerned that the massacre story was not being told effectively, Matthews launched the Centennial Commission.
He has worked closely with U.S. Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma.
In 2018, the two unveiled a new curriculum designed to make sure students receive proper instruction about the massacre.
“Our political perspectives are very different, but we agree on the need to teach the accurate history of the massacre across our state and around the nation so our country can learn from our past,” Lankford told the Chronicle in a written statement.
“It’s a shame that we still have not found tombstones or graves of every one of them. We ask for people of faith to pray that we find those remains and give them a proper burial.”
“Kevin is strong in his faith and his commitment to reconciliation to God and to each other,” added the U.S. senator, who is an ordained Southern Baptist pastor. “We should continue to lift up the Greenwood community in north Tulsa and all of Oklahoma’s rising historically Black towns. Let’s pray and get to work on reconciliation together.”
While Matthews praises God for the progress made, he still sees challenges ahead.
He hopes to locate the remains of massacre victims believed to have been hastily buried in mass graves. According to The Associated Press, researchers are preparing to resume a search for those graves.
“It’s a shame that we still have not found tombstones or graves of every one of them,” Matthews told the Chronicle. “We ask for people of faith to pray that we find those remains and give them a proper burial.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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