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2 survivors of Tulsa Race Massacre say they still have nightmares 100 years later

A brother and sister look back on the night 100 years ago that a white mob destroyed their neighborhood and murdered hundreds of successful Black residents.
/ Source: TODAY

It's been 100 years since white mobs killed hundreds of residents and completely destroyed 35 blocks of a thriving Black community in Oklahoma, but Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, still remembers it like it was yesterday.

At the time, Fletcher was just 7 years old, and she couldn't understand why there was suddenly so much chaos in her neighborhood. When her mother told her they had to hurry up and leave town, she followed her instructions.

"(I) remember the noise of guns shooting, people running and screaming, noise from the air, like an airplane, fires burning and smelling smoke," the 107-year-old told NBC's Morgan Radford in a segment for Sunday TODAY. "We could hear someone going through the neighborhood (saying) that everybody should leave town, that they were killing all the Black people."

During the Tulsa Race Massacre, which took place between May 31 and June 1, 1921, an estimated 300 people died as a result of racist white mobs attacking the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, which had become so successful it was known as Black Wall Street. Some 800 people were wounded, 8,000 were left homeless, and generations of wealth were destroyed. Those who escaped had to leave most of their possessions behind.

Calling the experience "something you don't forget," Fletcher said she saw the mob looting homes and Black bodies in the street. "I don't know if they were all dead, but they were laying out, not able to get up and move or get out of the way of whatever was happening."

"Every evening, I kind of have a feeling it's time to run and no telling what might happen," she continued. "I hardly sleep nights. I lost my appetite. ... They don't ever leave your mind, not mine. That's something I've been thinking about for the last hundred years."

"I think if people are brave enough to do that once, they will do it again, so we fear that as we live from day to day."

Fletcher's younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, was just an infant at the time, but he said the aftermath of the massacre has stayed with him.

"I can't sleep at night. I have to have light," the 100-year-old said, adding that he still has nightmares. "I dream of what my sister told me. I dream of all (that) happened. I wake up about four times a night."

In addition to carrying the memories of that night, the siblings also believe the massacre negatively impacted the trajectory of their lives.

"So many years, I didn't go to school full term, so I didn't get the education that I should have had, enough to make a decent living, like working and earning a big salary," Fletcher said.

Van Ellis added that he didn't have a chance to go to college because he had to work.

"It's not been the easiest," he said. "I think we should have justice for all of this. ... (Black people) have built the United States, and we don't get credit for that."

Survivors of the massacre have filed a lawsuit against the city, county and other local authorities in Tulsa and are seeking a victims' fund. To amplify their calls for justice, Van Ellis and Fletcher both testified before a House committee earlier this month.

If the lawsuit is successful, Fletcher hopes a victims' fund will help her family and anyone else who survived the massacre.

"I think everybody should have a share of that — not that it will bring back the feeling, but it would make us comfortable," she said. "I could live more comfortable with things that I need, like ... transportation and taking trips, a nice big trip, like going to Africa."

Fletcher also wants the money to benefit the descendants of those who lived in Greenwood in 1921 by "(encouraging) them to try to go to college and get a good education and good jobs. Then they would be able to do the things they wanted to do," she said.

Over the course of his lifetime, which almost began with the Tulsa Race Massacre, Van Ellis said he's seen the country make some progress on its treatment of Black people.

"We've come a little piece, not too far," he said. "We need to do a lot more."