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Race Massacre Survivors Convene with New York Philanthropists at The Oklahoma Eagle
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Race Massacre Survivors Convene with New York Philanthropists at The Oklahoma Eagle

  • The three living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre met at The Oklahoma Eagle earlier this month, bringing their saga of perseverance and hope to the Historic Greenwood District’s century-old, Black-owned newspaper.
Regina Goodwin, Lachanze, Tamara Tunie, Lisa Mitzen, Vanessa Williams, Ed Mitzen, Jeremy Kuzmarov, Gary Lee, M. David Goodwin, James Goodwin, Ross Johnson, Sam Levrault, Kimberly Marsh, African American News, Black News, African American Newspaper, Black Owned Newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle, The Eagle, Black Wall Street, Tulsa Race Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Viola Ford Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle, Hughes Van Ellis

LOCAL & STATE

Gary Lee

The Oklahoma Eagle


Photos SAM LEVRAULT MEDIA

TULSA – The occasion for the Dec. 7 gathering was a reunion between the survivors – Viola Fletcher, 108, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, and Hughes Van Ellis, 101, – and the New York philanthropists – Ed and Lisa Mitzen – who donated $1 million to the survivors’ on May 18.  

The Mitzens traveled to Tulsa to visit the Historic Greenwood District and was accompanied by several notable, award-winners who represent New York-based Black Theatre United (BTU) and Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY (BTTUNY). The visitors included former Miss America, singer, actress and fashion designer Vanessa Williams; Tony Award-winning actress, director and producer Tamara Tunie, who is most widely known for her role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit;” and Tony Award-winning actress, singer and dancer LaChanze, who are BTU’s co-founders; and BTTUNY’s president Sheilah London-Miller and producer Jean-Remy Monnay. 

At the time of his visit to Tulsa in May, Ed Mitzen, who co-founded the Business for Good Foundation (BGF) with his wife, presented the donation alone since she was unable to travel to Oklahoma. 

Regina Goodwin, Lachanze, Tamara Tunie, Lisa Mitzen, Vanessa Williams, Ed Mitzen, Jeremy Kuzmarov, Gary Lee, M. David Goodwin, James Goodwin, Ross Johnson, Sam Levrault, Kimberly Marsh, African American News, Black News, African American Newspaper, Black Owned Newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle, The Eagle, Black Wall Street, Tulsa Race Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Viola Ford Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle, Hughes Van Ellis
LEFT-RIGHT. LISA MITZEN AND ED MITZEN gathered with 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors at The Oklahoma Eagle on Wed., Dec. 7. PHOTO SAM LEVRAULT MEDIA

The group’s trip this time also included visits to Greenwood Cultural Center, Black Wall Street Memorial, Mabel Little House, Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church, John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park and the Booker T. Washington High School Memorial. 

The Mitzens shared they were inspired to give $1 million to the three survivors after reading an article in The Washington Post by staff writer and Oklahoma City native DeNeen L. Brown about the survivors’ plight. Brown has written extensively about the Tulsa Race Massacre – including the legal victory when Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall ruled that the survivors’ court case against the city of Tulsa and other defendants could proceed. “We’re seeing news when Ed said to me, ‘You have to see this,’” Lisa Mitzen recalled after reading the Post story. “And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Look at this story in Tulsa, where the families finally were approved for the right to sue. I said, ‘What? Can’t anyone sue anyone?’ I don’t understand why after all this time. So, we said, ‘We have to do something.’” 

After reading Brown’s coverage, Ed Mitzen said he contacted Brown to inform her that the couple wanted to make a monetary contribution to Fletcher, Randle and Van Ellis.  

Since the Post story, all plaintiffs’ claims have been dismissed except for the three survivors. Their legal case is still proceeding. 

This latest visit by the Mitzens was to see Tulsa’s historic Black community with a new set of friends. 

The Eagle publisher and attorney James O. Goodwin and other newsroom and community leaders also participated in the meeting. The North Tulsa weekly newspaper is one of a small handful of institutions that have survived since the Black Wall Street heyday of the 1920s. The Eagle is committed to keeping the story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, including the sagas of the survivors, a regular part of our coverage. 

During the meeting, Van Ellis shared that his connection to The Eagle extends back to the early 1930s when he sold the newspaper for 5 cents. 

Oklahoma State Rep. Regina Goodwin was the lead organizer for the event. She maintains strong ties with the survivors. She was also key in organizing the Mitzens’ gift to the survivors and helped organize their travel to Ghana in August. Only Fletcher and her brother Ellis were able to travel.  

Rep. Goodwin also assisted in facilitating a $600,000 donation from the Tulsa-based Transformation Church in June 2021. Each survivor received $200,000.  

In introducing the survivors, she said, “They can engage with you on any level.”  

Turning to her uncle “Jim,” she added, “And I just wanted you to meet what we consider to be the backbone of this community.” 

Regina Goodwin, Lachanze, Tamara Tunie, Lisa Mitzen, Vanessa Williams, Ed Mitzen, Jeremy Kuzmarov, Gary Lee, M. David Goodwin, James Goodwin, Ross Johnson, Sam Levrault, Kimberly Marsh, African American News, Black News, African American Newspaper, Black Owned Newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle, The Eagle, Black Wall Street, Tulsa Race Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Viola Ford Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle, Hughes Van Ellis
TOP ROW, LEFT- RIGHT. LACHANZE, TAMARA TUNIE, LISA MITZEN, VANESSA WILLIAMS AND ED MITZEN gathered with 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, Viola Fletcher, 108, and Hughes Van Ellis, 101. The event was hosted by The Oklahoma Eagle on Wed., Dec. 7. PHOTO SAM LEVRAULT MEDIA

Survivors’ congressional testimony recalled  

Relatives of the survivors, who also attended the meeting, shared highlights of the survivors’ journeys.  

One particularly poignant memory Ike Howard, Fletcher’s grandson and Van Ellis’s nephew, recalled was the testimony the three survivors gave before Congress in May 2021. In that hearing, the survivors made the case that they – and descendants of the reparations. Fletcher and Randall testified of their memories of the Race Massacre. After surviving the Race Massacre as a toddler, Van Ellis testified last at the hearing and told of how he went on to serve his country in the military.   

“Granny, you know, really say what she needed to,” Howard recalled. “And it was very, very potent.”  

Howard then recapped Van Ellis’s testimony. “Despite all the stuff that happened to us, we are one people,” Van Ellis told the hearing. “This is one nation under God. And it was deep. How could you go through what you’ve been through and not feel some type of way have the type of hatred that the people had toward you?” 

Regina Goodwin, Lachanze, Tamara Tunie, Lisa Mitzen, Vanessa Williams, Ed Mitzen, Jeremy Kuzmarov, Gary Lee, M. David Goodwin, James Goodwin, Ross Johnson, Sam Levrault, Kimberly Marsh, African American News, Black News, African American Newspaper, Black Owned Newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle, The Eagle, Black Wall Street, Tulsa Race Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Viola Ford Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle, Hughes Van Ellis
LEFT-RIGHT. LACHANZE, TAMARA TUNIE AND VANESSA WILLIAMS capturing a moment shared while touring the Historic Greenwood District. on Wed., Dec. 7. PHOTO SAM LEVRAULT MEDIA

A second journey 

The Mitzens journeyed to Tulsa from New York to meet with the survivors and tour the Historic Greenwood District. For his trip, the Mitzens invited the actors who represented the two New York-based theatre groups. 

“I think more people need to hear this story. More people need to understand,” Lisa Mitzen told the Eagle gathering. “Growing up in a very white community, it’s pretty sad that I knew all about the Irish potato famine in the 50s. But I never knew anything about what was happening in Oklahoma.” 

Ed Mitzen shared a brief overview of his and Lisa’s mission. 

“We work predominantly in Albany, New York, and upstate,” he said. “And we’re helping a lot of people of color start companies. We got that sort of inspiration from here and seeing what this place was, like 100 years ago, we’re hearing about it. And knowing that we can help build an ecosystem that will work, right, as opposed to another monument here or another mural. 

“We’re trying to help get people, you know, become entrepreneurs, grow, companies hire people. We’re trying to give people opportunities we were so blessed to have that, unfortunately, so many others weren’t.” 

He also recalled his trip to Tulsa in May.  

“I remember it was right after the shootings in Buffalo,” he said. “And on the way here, I remember thinking like, ‘It’s just hope, right? Like, you know, when is this going to stop?’ And then you meet these three individuals that have been fighting for over 100 years, and it inspires you to keep going from us. 

In clinging to hope after surviving the massacre, Vanessa Williams asked how the three centenarians: “How do you deal with what has happened in your life and how do you not let it turn into cancer or make you sick?” 

“I think you have to have that hope,” Van Ellis replied. 

Regina Goodwin, Lachanze, Tamara Tunie, Lisa Mitzen, Vanessa Williams, Ed Mitzen, Jeremy Kuzmarov, Gary Lee, M. David Goodwin, James Goodwin, Ross Johnson, Sam Levrault, Kimberly Marsh, African American News, Black News, African American Newspaper, Black Owned Newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle, The Eagle, Black Wall Street, Tulsa Race Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Viola Ford Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle, Hughes Van Ellis
LEFT-RIGHT. OKLA. STATE REP. REGINA GOODWIN AND HUGHES VAN ELLIS sharing a selfie at The Oklahoma Eagle on Wed., Dec. 7. PHOTO SAM LEVRAULT MEDIA

Eagle’s role 

Rep. Goodwin told of her family’s roots and lifelong devotion to champion Black Tulsa and the Historic Greenwood District.  

“My grandfather had the motto in the front of people: ‘We make America better when we aid our people,’” she said. “And he wanted a newspaper that would tell the other side of the story. Because in that day, when the main press was writing, my grandfather, one that controls the narrative, and talks about the goodness in the community, and what we are about, we continue to do that moving forward. 

“And we’re going to have to have a publication that has integrity. That speaks to the truth. Not twisted.” 

James Goodwin recalled his start at the Eagle as a kid. 

“Every Saturday morning, I came to the newspaper, not this location, but two locations ahead of us,” he said. “And my job was to clean the printing press. It would take me about two hours. The broom was bigger than me. But that was my job. But at the end of that two hours, maybe three hours. My pay was 30 cents, with which I used to go to the Dreamland Theater, three doors down from the newspaper.” 

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During the group’s visit at Historic Vernon, Vanessa Williams reconnected with the Rev. Keith R. Mayes Sr., whose children were extras during the 2009 filming of “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” 

Sheilah London-Miller said she was moved by her visit with the survivors and hearing their stories. 

“I appreciate all of you,” she said. “Your struggle is real. And we want you to know that we appreciate what you’ve done. The groundwork that you’ve made for us, I mean, I can’t talk because I’m so full. I’m almost in tears.” 

LaChanze said learning more about the Tulsa Race Massacre through the survivors “just affirms for me the power of the human spirit. 

“… And I believe that that is a large testament to who we are as a people and how we were able to survive and continue to thrive as we do under unsurmountable circumstances. And so it’s really beautiful to be here and see the legacy that has that has been produced. Since what has happened and how you’re still carrying the pride and the beauty and the purpose and the faith and the vision and the future of the Tulsa community.” 

Van Ellis shared a quiet moment with Williams, reminding her they met about 30 years ago, though he was unable to get her autograph because he didn’t have a pen at the time. 

To honor that occasion, Williams signed a copy of the Eagle edition that featured the survivors in May 2021. 

Regina Goodwin, Lachanze, Tamara Tunie, Lisa Mitzen, Vanessa Williams, Ed Mitzen, Jeremy Kuzmarov, Gary Lee, M. David Goodwin, James Goodwin, Ross Johnson, Sam Levrault, Kimberly Marsh, African American News, Black News, African American Newspaper, Black Owned Newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle, The Eagle, Black Wall Street, Tulsa Race Massacre, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Viola Ford Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle, Hughes Van Ellis
LEFT-RIGHT. LISA MITZEN, LACHANZE, VANESSA WILLIAMS AND JEAN-REMY MONNAY touring Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church on Wed., Dec. 7. PHOTO SAM LEVRAULT MEDIA

Williams’s Tulsa connection 

Williams also reconnected with her godfather, Tulsa native Joe Tibbs.  

When she asked James Goodwin if he knew him, he said not only have they been lifelong friends, but he also called Tibbs on his cell phone and Williams talked with him. “It warmed my heart to hear her mention Joe’s name, because Joe is so close to me,” he said. “My impulse was to embrace her as family.” 

Tibbs was close to her parents, Helen and Milton Augustine Williams Jr., and was at her baptism at Our Lady of Grace Church in the Bronx, New York in 1963. She told Tibbs her trip to Tulsa was brief and that she would tell her parents they talked. 

Play in the works 

Monnay and London-Miller said the visit could result in their theatre companies crafting a play on the Historic Greenwood District and the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre.  

Tunie said BTU was organized by her, LaChanze and Williams after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police as a social vehicle “to address inequities and biases against black people, not just in the theater community, but beyond.” 

When Ed Mitzen decided to invite them to Tulsa, Monnay and London-Miller and the other entertainers said they jumped at the opportunity.  

“You guys do have this kind of passion,” Monnay said told the survivors and others. “So that’s just give me more encouragement, because of what I’m doing so thank you.” 

Though details are still being finalized, London-Miller said, “we are doing a project so, and I just want to commemorate you for the struggle. And what you’ve done for us and don’t think we don’t care. And we don’t appreciate because everybody in this room, we feel the love, we feel the struggle, and we appreciate you. 

“…We love you, and we salute you, and we celebrate you. And I promise you we will, we will let your legacy live on. I promise you.” 

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