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One hundred years after the Tulsa Race Massacre, its last survivors say their wounds remain unhealed

Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, can still remember a house engulfed in flames and the bodies stacked on trucks, one hundred years later.

“I was quite a little kid but I remember running and the soldiers were coming in,” Ms Randle said in an interview with Reuters as her Oklahoma hometown of Tulsa prepared to mark one of the darkest chapters in its history.

31 May marks the centenary of a massacre targeting Tulsa’s prosperous African-American community in the district of Greenwood that bore the nickname “Black Wall Street”.

After a black man was accused of assaulting a white woman, an allegation that was never proven, white rioters gunned down blacks, looted homes and set fire to buildings block by block. More than 1,000 buildings were destroyed.

Photo shows the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Photo shows the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma

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An estimated 300 people were killed, thousands were left homeless and an entire community that had been seen as a symbol of what black Americans could achieve was devastated.

“This was the Mecca. Tulsa’s considerably what Atlanta is today,” said Duke Durant, 30, a comedian, actor and Tulsa native, referring to one of the US cities noted for its large, thriving black community.

Events related to the massacre commemoration began ahead of the anniversary.

Friday’s Black Wall Street Legacy Festival included a parade led by Randle and two other centenarian survivors, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis. The three were joined by community organisations and about 450 students from George Washington Carver Middle School, where the parade began.

At the parade’s start, members of the African Ancestral Society surrounded a horse-drawn carriage holding the three survivors and sang blessings, before marchers headed past tidy homes toward the heart of Greenwood.

“We are one,” Van Ellis, 100, said from inside the carriage.

Pictures of parishioners from the AME Church congregation are displayed during commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Pictures of parishioners from the AME Church congregation are displayed during commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Getty Images North America

The commemoration is slated to include a visit by President Joe Biden on Tuesday and the unveiling of the $US20 million Greenwood Rising museum.

The museum, which is devoted to telling the story of Greenwood, will not be completed in time for the centennial but there will be a “limited preview,” a Tulsa commission formed to commemorate the anniversary said on its website.

A candlelight vigil is among the commemoration events to take place on Monday, local time.

For decades, newspapers rarely mentioned the events of 31 May and 1 June, 1921. The state’s historians largely ignored the massacre and children did not learn about it in school, according to a 2001 report written by a commission created by the state legislature.

Tulsans attribute the silence to a number of factors. Black Tulsans were traumatised, feared it could happen again and did not want to pass on the information to their children, while white Tulsans would not have wanted to believe respected members of their community participated, according to Phil Armstrong, the project director of the centennial commission, and Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

The Black Wall Street Massacre memorial names those who died in the riots.

The Black Wall Street Massacre memorial names those who died in the riots.

Getty Images North America

Ms Place said the 2001 report was written before it was too late.

“Many of those survivors of the race massacre were dying or had died so it was an effort to tell their stories and to remember that part of our history and not let it go to the grave, if you will,” Ms Place said.

The history is also recorded in court records. Ms Randle described the bodies and burning house she saw in a deposition in a lawsuit filed in February by survivors and descendants seeking justice for victims. Calls for reparations have long gone unanswered.

Greg Robinson, 31, a community activist and 2020 mayoral candidate, said he was pleased with the increased attention on Tulsa during the anniversary, but added that more work needed to be done to repair the damage.

“I’m glad to see people from across the country coming to understand the story of Greenwood,” he said. “But make no mistake about it, we have a very clear message that until justice is done, we have work to do.”

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