As the last living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre continue their fight for reparations, a New York philanthropist gifted them $1 million hoping it begins to account for the wrongs they have faced.
Ed Mitzen, co-founder of the New York-based nonprofit Business for Good, presented the donation to Viola Fletcher, 108, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, 101, at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa on Wednesday.
“We made this donation directly to the family so that we could help make their lives a little bit easier. And also to tell them that people do care and that their struggle matters,” Mitzen, 54, told CNN.
The centenarians were young children when White Tulsans formed a lynch mob in 1921 and attacked the Greenwood District, a thriving Black hub of commerce and home to multiple millionaires. Hundreds of Black people were killed, businesses were looted and the neighborhood was turned into ashes. Historical photos show bodies of Black residents lying in the streets.
In recent years, there have been a number of efforts to raise awareness about the massacre. It became a plot line in two popular TV shows – HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” and “Watchmen” — and Fletcher testified in Congress to ask the country to officially acknowledge the massacre. (CNN and HBO have the same parent company.)
Mitzen, who said he was not aware of the massacre until a few years ago, said he and his wife Lisa decided to make the donation after reading news coverage about the ongoing lawsuit brought up by survivors against the city of Tulsa. The case seeks to set the record straight on what took place between May 31 and June 1, 1921, and create a special fund for survivors and descendants of the massacre.
Earlier this month, a Tulsa judge rejected a request to dismiss the lawsuit, which their attorney has said is potentially their last chance to get some semblance of justice due to their old age.
Mitzen said he became frustrated and angry knowing the survivors had to go to court.
“They had their homes destroyed, insurance claims denied. Whether it was 101 years ago or six months ago, it doesn’t change the fact that they were clearly wronged. 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 said.
The legal battle also reminded him of efforts from 9/11 first responders, where it felt like officials were just “running out the clock,” he said.
Ike Howard, Fletcher’s grandson, said the families were grateful for the donation, which will help cover the care and needs of the three survivors.
“We were all in shock, didn’t believe it until we saw it [the news article] published nationally,” Howard told reporters.
While this donation will directly help Fletcher and the other survivors, Howard said they will continue working to get more resources to build up their community.
“They would like to see more opportunities in the Black community. They would like to see a hospital in North Tulsa, they would like to see economic development in North Tulsa,” Howard said.
During a ceremony marking the donation, Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin said Mitzen’s gift is welcome but it doesn’t change the survivors’ fight for reparations.
“We are very clear that there’s a difference between generosity and justice. What you see here today is generosity. What you see here today is pure love. What you see here today is a man and a group of folks who care enough to give up their means so we don’t confuse the two issues. The 101-year fight is ongoing,” Goodwin said.
Mitzen says he and his wife created the Business for Good foundation to help people start companies or grow their current businesses to “go up the income curve” in upstate New York. This is the first donation outside the state.
For him, a lot of people in America have lost interest and the ability of caring for one another in recent years. He hopes his gift helps more than the Tulsa massacre survivors.
“We hope this inspires others to do more for those that need a hand up, not a handout. Whether or not it’s with the survivors and the families in Tulsa, or folks in their local communities,” Mitzen told CNN.