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Tulsa Race Massacre survivors remember the deadly night 100 years later

Lessie Benningfield Randle and Hughes Van Ellis, two of three living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, are reflecting on the deadly attack that changed their lives.

Lessie Benningfield Randle and Hughes Van Ellis Getty Images

Survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre are reflecting on the deadly tragedy 100 years later.

Over 300 people were killed as violent white mobs attacked Black Wall Street, which was the wealthiest Black community in the United States. In the aftermath, many of the survivors were placed in internment camps to prevent them from participating in a “Negro uprising.” The deadly event caused more than $25 million in damages, which was a huge loss for the flourishing Black community. A lot of the survivors and their descendants were stripped of their wealth and opportunity and never got a chance to regain any of it.

Lessie Benningfield Randle was only six years old when the deadly attack took place. She was at her grandmother’s house when soldiers came to the front door and escorted her and her family out of the home to the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, where the National Guard held more than 6,000 Black people for several days at a time.

“The soldiers came, and they took us to the fairgrounds so that we would be out of danger if the ‘rebels’ came to harm us. They took us where we would be safe,” Randle said. She said that the local police made white men and boys “special deputies” to loot and torch the city after false rumors surfaced that a Black teen sexually assaulted a white girl in Greenwood.

“Some of [the buildings] they burned. Some they tore up,” Randle said. “It was quite something to see.…I never want to see anything like that again.”

Hughes Van Ellis, a 100-year-old Tulsa survivor, joined an all-Black unit in the Army to fight for his country, although his country did not fight for him. “I fought for freedom abroad even though it was ripped away from me at home,” he said. “My home and my community were destroyed. It’s because I believe in the end America would get this right. When I returned home from the war, I didn’t find any of this freedom I was fighting for overseas. Unlike white servicemen, I wasn’t entitled to GI Bill benefits because of the color of my skin.”

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