A Century Ago, They Lived Through a Rampage. Now, $1M

3 centenarians who lived through 1921's Tulsa Race Massacre will split gift
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 20, 2022 6:50 AM CDT
Tulsa Massacre Survivors Get $1M Donation
Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, from left, Hughes Van Ellis Sr., Lessie Benningfield Randle, and Viola Fletcher wave and high-five supporters from a horse-drawn carriage before a march in Tulsa, Okla., on May 28, 2021.   (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki File)

(Newser) – Only three survivors remain from the Tulsa Race Massacre, the 1921 attack in which a white mob descended upon the city's affluent Black neighborhood of Greenwood, torched more than 1,250 homes, and killed hundreds. That trio never received any reparations from either Tulsa or the state of Oklahoma, but this week, a philanthropic organization tried to make that right. The New York Times reports that Hughes Van Ellis, 101; Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107; and Viola Fletcher, 108, were presented on Wednesday with a $1 million check they'll split, courtesy of Ed Mitzen's Business for Good nonprofit.

"Clearly these folks were wronged," Mitzen, an entrepreneur who co-founded the charity, tells KTUL. "Whether it happened 101 years ago or six months ago, it doesn't change what happened." Van Ellis, Randle, and Fletcher, as well as family members of other victims, filed a lawsuit in 2020 against the city of Tulsa, the county sheriff, and the state's National Guard, among other defendants, fighting for compensation for what they'd endured as young children in the district known as "Black Wall Street." Part of that lawsuit was given the OK by a judge earlier this month to move forward, but Mitzen—who found out about the Tulsa Race Massacre only a few years ago—heard about the survivors' complaint and became frustrated by how long the process was taking.

"We felt badly that they had to work so hard to try to get what we felt was an obvious thing that was owed to them," he tells CNN. He also suspects, due to the survivors' ages, that local officials were stalling and just "running down the clock." Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin, whose own great-grandparents lost property in the massacre, lauds Mitzen's gesture as "pure love," but she says the push for reparations continues. "There's a difference between generosity and justice," she notes. Mitzen acknowledges that his group's donation isn't meant as a simplified fix. "We can't write a check and undo what was done to these people or erase 100 years of struggle," he tells KTUL. "All we're trying to do is make their lives a little bit easier." (Read more Tulsa Race Massacre stories.)

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