Daniel Roumain bent low in a reverent gesture, dropping to a knee as he bowed his violin. In front of him sat a trio of people who have lived for a combined 313 years. Scattered in the Oklahoma wind on the night of May 31, 1921 by a violent mob filled with vicious hate, all three returned to Tulsa on Saturday, nearly 100 years later, to be showered with admiration for their longevity and resilience.
Roumain, a classically trained composer and violinist with Black and Haitian roots, returned to the stage and began strumming with his fingers. He then spoke from the heart.
“I don’t have all the answers. But I am ready to play my part. I’ll keep playing and doing and being and believing and listening, and maybe we’ll all get there together.”
At the Honoring Survivors and Descendants Luncheon on Saturday, which was sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative, the Terence Crutcher Foundation and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 107-year-old Viola Ford Fletcher, 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle and 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis received an afternoon of adulation, which featured musicians like Roumain and esteemed speakers from all across the country.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Van Ellis, who is also the younger brother of Fletcher. “I didn’t think I would get the opportunity to do this in my life. It’s an honor to get attention. It’s an honor for people to hear your story. Somebody heard my story after 100 years.”
“They’re still here to represent those that have gone before them,” said Jackie Emerson Weary, a descendant of a survivor, John R. Emerson Sr. “It’s heartbreaking, but they have persevered. They have the tenacity, and the courage to live on.”
Van Ellis was just an infant when everything his family owned was destroyed and they had to flee Tulsa in the middle of the night. Fletcher remembers a fulfilling and joyful childhood in Greenwood until it was all ripped away when she was seven years old. Van Ellis never even got to experience that, becoming a refugee in his own country when he was just a baby. For nearly a century, the truth of what happened in Tulsa on that Memorial Day Weekend in 1921 and the enduring effects have been obscured and hand waved.
“I’ve been trying to tell this story, but nobody would listen,” said Van Ellis. “It’s a true story.”
This weekend, all eyes and ears are on the centennial of the massacre and the stories of the survivors. Though it has been a long wait for recognition, Van Ellis lived a life of dignity and resolve. Despite the grievous theft, injury and insult to the arc of his life at its very outset, Van Ellis didn’t become resentful. He instead served his country and his family. He fought in the Pacific theater of World War II in an All-African American Army battalion. He worked hard when he came back stateside, including a couple of decades working at Tinker Air Force Base, and raised seven children.
Those in attendance on Saturday paid respect to the three living survivors, but many of those giving standing ovations had their own stories to share. Don Adams and his family traveled in from around the country to honor Don’s great uncle, Dr. Andrew Cheesten Jackson, who was a prominent surgeon in Greenwood. Jackson, who was recognized by the Mayo Brothers (of Mayo Clinic fame) was murdered in the 1921 massacre.
“Powerful, sorrowful, but hopeful,” Adams said of Saturday’s luncheon. “The money that was lost, the wealth that was lost, the generational wealth that was lost, it’s incalculable.”
Weary’s ancestors, the Emerson family, moved from Maryland to Tennessee to Arkansas and then to Tulsa in hopes for a better life. They found it in Greenwood, but then it was brutally stolen in a span of 12 hours. John R. Emerson Sr. hid under the railroad tracks to survive the race riot. Undeterred, Emerson Sr. later returned to Tulsa to start the Blue Bird Cab Company, a healthcare clinic and a construction company that built over 100 homes in north Tulsa.
“Today is an honor,” said Weary. “It doesn’t erase the pain of yesterday, but it does bring about some healing today, knowing that we are being honored and recognized.”
“We’re going to make our ancestors, our forefathers and mothers proud because we’re going to continue to strive for justice and equality,” Weary added. “We’re going to continue to be the doctors and lawyers, the attorneys, surveyors, contractors and those things so that one day, we pray that we will have neighborhoods full of everything that we need, just like they did.”
Before Saturday’s event concluded, there was one more major honor to be bestowed. Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons from Justice for Greenwood was the final speaker and announced a gift of $100,000 each to Fletcher, Randle and Van Ellis. Thanks to some incredible fundraising and generosity from donors invested in seeing the three survivors be acknowledged, the checks were delivered to the stage, smiles beamed across faces and everyone in the building stood to celebrate the incredible gift.
“It took my breath,” Van Ellis said. “Getting that check, it just bowed everything up.”