No matter where Viola Ford Fletcher has lived over the last 100 years – Claremore, Okla., California, Bartlesville, Okla., or now back in Tulsa – the lights inside her home stay on from sundown to sunrise. Thoughts of a frantic escape from unspeakable hatred and violence still disrupt her peace.
“Every night. Every day.”
Fletcher says that’s how frequently she recalls the horrific 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and her family’s nighttime ride in a horse-drawn buggy to narrowly get out of town before an infernal mob descended upon their home.
“I hardly sleep at night. I don’t sleep in the dark,” said the 107-year-old Fletcher, one of only three living survivors of the massacre. “I don’t have it as bad now as I did then, but it stays with me. You would think when I get older it would pass, but it doesn’t.”
Viola’s family moved to Oklahoma right after statehood in 1907 and eventually made its way up to Tulsa. Fletcher’s mother, Lucinda Ellis, had already given birth to five of Viola’s seven siblings before May 10, 1914, when Viola came into the world. Her father, John Wesley Ford, was a sharecropper. A feudal existence for a Black family in the 1920s, sharecropping was an all hands on deck arrangement for the Ford family, meaning Viola and her siblings worked instead of attending school as children. They pulled cotton, corn, greens, beans and potatoes out of the dirt, and all were used to try and elevate their standard of living.
“Whatever the ground grows,” said Viola, known these days as Mother Fletcher. “All the children, we all helped.”
That work ethic was in the atmosphere in their neighborhood of Greenwood, situated on the north side of Tulsa where Black-owned businesses thrived, the people rallied in support of one another and residents looked out for the needs of their neighbors. Around 11,000 people inhabited Greenwood, which was separated from white Tulsa as segregation was firmly the law of the land.
In Greenwood, Black people walked to church, ate at restaurants, saw the doctor and visited the local theater. When it came time and a loved one moved on, they called on the services of the undertaker, yet another of the Black-owned institutions that helped Greenwood become a self-sustaining community.
“We were enjoying living here. It was real nice up and down Greenwood,” said Fletcher. “We had churches and restaurants and parks and playgrounds and stores. Just everything you needed in a neighborhood. We were real proud of that. Everybody was happy and satisfied.”
That burgeoning momentum of Black excellence and peaceful serenity was snuffed out in one appalling night.
On May 30, 1921, a Black man named Dick Rowland was sought by police after being involved in an ambiguous incident on an elevator ride he shared with a 17-year-old white woman, Sarah Page. Tulsa newspapers ran wild with the gossip and the police arrested Rowland and the following day, on May 31st. A mob of white Tulsans gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, demanding that deputies hand Rowland over, aiming to circumvent all due process to exact an evil brand of vigilantism.
A small group of Black men, many World War I veterans, arrived at the courthouse as well to protect Rowland. Meanwhile, the white mob swelled to nearly two thousand people. A scuffle broke out sometime after 10 p.m., and the mob chased the Black men back to the Greenwood district. By morning on June 1st, the neighborhood was an unrecognizable, smoldering pile of ash and death.
“That evening in Tulsa we heard a noise, people running and screaming and crying and guns shooting and the houses burning,” Fletcher recalled in a flurry. “We could smell smoke.”
“Someone was running through the neighborhood saying that everybody should get out of town because the white people are killing all the Black people,” Fletcher said.
The armed mob, including a group with a machine gun perched at the top of a grain elevator, are confirmed to have killed at least 36 and possibly as many as 300 Black people. At least 1,000 homes, 31 restaurants, two dozen grocery stores, a dozen churches, eight doctors offices, five hotels, four drug stores and the Black public library were all looted and then burned to the ground by the time the Oklahoma City National Guard arrived in Tulsa to stop the violence.
“I don’t have it as bad now as I did then, but it stays with me. You would think when I get older it would pass, but it doesn’t."
While frantically searching for killed or missing loved ones and friends, nearly 10,000 Black Tulsans were left homeless, without their possessions and bereft of the community they relied upon for support and connection. Thanks to the warning just minutes before the mob descended on the Fletcher house, Viola and her parents and siblings slipped out of Tulsa in the middle of the night, traversing 30 miles to Claremore, Okla., re-starting their lives penniless.
“We left fast enough to get away from the noise,” Fletcher said. “People in the neighborhood were left with nothing.”
“When you grow up you wonder why. Why do cruel things happen?” Fletcher added.
Over a decade later, Viola moved back to Tulsa to live with her sister and brother-in-law, the latter of whom introduced her to Robert Fletcher, a truck driver for Colonial Bakery, who delivered donuts, cookies and cakes around the city.
“That was a nice person to meet,” Fletcher said with a grin.
To help support the family and provide her children opportunities she never had, Viola worked as a housekeeper for white families in Tulsa – cleaning, doing laundry, cooking and performing other tasks. Laboring at a low salary for upper class families, many of whom didn’t register her work as official, means that now Viola’s social security checks are well below what they should be. All that work in the fields as a child and the subsistence living she earned as an adult removed the option of education from Viola’s table, but she always encouraged her children to attend school and pursue education.
“I was anxious for them to go because I didn’t have a chance to go,” said Fletcher. “I didn’t hardly have time to go to school at all, but I tried to work so my children could go.”
The family moved to California during World War II, then to Albuquerque and then to Bartlesville, Okla. No matter where they lived, one huge part of Viola’s children’s education had to come from home because there was nowhere else to find it. Information about the Tulsa Race Massacre was obfuscated, removed from newspaper records and expunged from public conversation. While Fletcher didn’t talk about the massacre with frequency, it was certainly a subject that her children and grandchildren were aware of in ways that many Oklahomans and Americans simply haven’t been over the years.
“They knew about it,” Fletcher said. “That’s something you won’t ever forget. I know I won’t.”
The lack of public acknowledgement hit Fletcher when she found out that a friend, a 75-year-old woman, had never heard of the massacre until just recently. That’s why, even at 107 years old, Fletcher trekked across the country to testify in front of Congress about her experience. As she concluded her remarks and declared, "This Congress must recognize us, and our history," she received a standing ovation. Now, 70 years after leaving Tulsa, Fletcher moved back into town just weeks before the 100-year anniversary of the massacre that left her family’s house and thriving Black neighborhood in ruin.
Fletcher is anticipating the many events to remember the Tulsa Race Massacre on the centennial weekend. To honor the three known living survivors who were there in Greenwood on that horrific night and the descendants of survivors who have since passed, the Black Wall Street Legacy Fest and the Thunder will be hosting the Honoring Survivors and Descendants Luncheon on Saturday, May 29th. Fletcher’s younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, who is 100 years old, will be in attendance, along with 106-year-old Tulsa resident and survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle, known as Mother Randle.
Viola Ford Fletcher, once forced to flee Tulsa in the middle of the night, will proudly be the oldest living survivor to be recognized on Saturday. As Tulsans, Oklahomans, and Americans all remember what the dreadful combination of hate and violence can do, Mother Fletcher’s life, experience and message live on as reminders of how to overcome and how to set a better example for future generations.
In her words.— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) May 24, 2021
Viola Fletcher, who is the oldest living survivor of the #TulsaRaceMassacre at 107 years of age, joins @Paris_two_three and discusses her experience and how it has stayed with her every day.@BWSLegacyFest pic.twitter.com/WgFzok2spL