Viola Ford Fletcher was just seven years old when she was forcibly displaced from her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, by an armed mob that destroyed the predominantly Black enclave of Greenwood, killing hundreds of residents.
Together with her grandson, Ike Howard, the 109-year-old Fletcher came to UN Headquarters this week to commemorate the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.
Standing in front of the Ark of Return monument, Fletcher and Howard spoke with UN News to discuss the legacy of slavery and the possibility of reparations for those with ancestral ties to the horrific trade.
The Greenwood district in Tulsa was colloquially known as Black Wall Street due to the wealth and opportunities it provided.
Segregation in Oklahoma during the 1920s severely restricted the socioeconomic status of Black residents, making Greenwood a rare neighborhood where they could thrive and attain success.
There were Black-owned grocery shops, furniture stores, and a movie theatre, an exceptional rarity for Black communities at the time.
On 30 May 1921, however, the neighborhood was plunged into what would eventually become one of the worst incidents of racially motivated violence in United States history.
Dick Rowland, a tall teenager with velvet skin, wore a diamond ring as he shined shoes in downtown Tulsa.
Rowland, 19, had recently dropped out of Booker T. Washington High School, where he was a star football player because he was making so much money polishing the shoes of oilmen in a city that billed itself as the “oil capital of the world.”
On May 30, 1921, Rowland took a break from his shoe stand inside a pool hall and walked to the Drexel Building to use the only public restroom for Black people in segregated Tulsa.
Rowland passed Renberg’s, a department store that occupied the first two floors of the Drexel Building, and stepped into an open wire-caged elevator operated by a 17-year-old White girl named Sarah Page.
Rowland may have accidentally stepped on Page’s foot, prompting her to shriek. Or tripped and bumped into her. To this day, the truth about what transpired between the two is not known.
When the elevator doors reopened, Rowland ran, and a clerk in Renberg’s called the police.
The young Black man was accused of assaulting Page and Rowland was subsequently arrested before news of his alleged crime had been published in sensationalized newspapers across the city. Though the charges were eventually dropped and Page later wrote a letter exonerating him, the accusation was enough to infuriate White residents.
Three hours after the Tulsa Tribune hit the street with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” hundreds of White men gathered at the Tulsa courthouse, where Rowland was being held.
A group of armed Black World War I veterans who wanted to protect Rowland from being lynched rushed to the courthouse to defend him.
The White crowd reportedly became enraged, and racist comments and expletives quickly escalated into an exchange of gunfire. A shot was fired and “all hell broke loose,” a massacre survivor recalled later.
The ensuing conflict quickly engulfed the entire neighborhood of Greenwood.
White men fired indiscriminately at Black residents fleeing the violence and proceeded to burn over 35 blocks of the neighborhood, resulting in the displacement of over 10,000 Black residents. The number of lives lost has never been confirmed, although some estimates place the death toll as high as 300.
Fletcher was one of the displaced.
In her memoir, Don’t Let Them Bury My Story: The Oldest Living Survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Her Own Words, Fletcher recalls seeing families desperately fleeing the carnage, with many being gunned down in the process.
“My eyes burned and watered from the smoke and ash, but I could still see everything so clearly. People ran clinging to their loved ones toward the railroad or any path out of the town that was not overrun with armed White men,” she writes. “Some of them made it. So many did not. We passed piles of dead bodies heaped in the streets. Some of them had their eyes open, as though they were still alive, but they weren’t.”
On Wednesday, 102 years later, Fletcher and her grandson held a libation ceremony in front of the Ark of Return at UN Headquarters.
The memorial was constructed by Haitian-American artist Rodney Leon for the UN in 2015.
According to Leon, the memorial is intended to be a “spiritual place of return” for all international victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
The ceremony was intended to coincide with the International Day of Remembrance and as a reminder of why the legacy of slavery must continue to be highlighted.
Also discussed was the possibility of reparations for those with ancestry tied to the slave trade.
“To reconcile means to reconcile. We need reparations, period. It’s time to make it right, worldwide. We need reparations around the world,” said Howard. “Some countries and some cities in the United States are taking steps to incorporate reparations. If there is a will there’s a way. We can get this done,” he added.
According to her grandson, Fletcher has been pleased with the progress that has been made in her lifetime.
Having lived through the post-reconstruction “Jim Crow” era, the civil rights movement, and, most recently, the Black Lives Matter movement, Fletcher has observed first-hand the evolving attitudes toward the legacy of the slave trade.
“She feels good about the movement that’s ongoing across the country. Dominoes are starting to fall. It’s a blessing to see a ray of sunshine, a ray of hope in these situations,” said Howard, speaking on behalf of his grandmother, who now finds it difficult to speak audibly.
“This energy is amazing because those same slaves are a part of the history of the worst race massacre in US history, called the Tulsa Race Massacre,” said Howard.
While speaking to mark the UN’s International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade in March, UN Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and labeled it an “evil enterprise”.
“Millions of African children, women, and men were trafficked across the Atlantic, ripped from their families and homelands – their communities torn apart, their bodies commodified, their humanity denied. The history of slavery is a history of suffering and barbarity that shows humanity at its worst,” said Guterres.
“The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade haunts us to this day. We can draw a straight line from the centuries of colonial exploitation to the social and economic inequalities of today,” the UN chief said.
Officially, the UN has taken a position that encourages Member States to create reparation frameworks for families impacted by the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.
“We must reverse the consequences of generations of exploitation, exclusion, and discrimination, including their obvious social and economic dimensions through reparatory justice frameworks,” said Guterres.