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GREENWOOD Dist.–If you stepped into First Baptist Church North Tulsa during Sunday morning service on May 28, your ears would’ve been permeated with the sweet sound of a family chorus paying tribute to the soul of a resilient Tulsa Race Massacre survivor.
Jonathan Townsend joined relatives that Sunday as he spoke and sang in front of the congregation. The event represented the church’s commemoration of the 102nd anniversary of the city-sanctioned attack on Historic Greenwood District, home to the original Black Wall Street.
Yet Townsend, a longtime educator, didn’t speak as Executive Director of Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences. That Sunday, he spoke as the great grandson of “Mother’ Leola LaVassar, a college graduate, nutritionist, devout Christian and survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Formed by wealthy Black and Indigenous Freedmen, the Greenwood District boasted more Black millionaires than any other community at the time. LaVassar wasn’t a wealthy business owner like more well-known figures on Black Wall Street, but through decades of service, she gained a reputation as a caretaker of the community.
“That’s where she was saved and baptized,” Townsend told The Black Wall Street Times. “Because of that I go to this church to this day. Our family’s been here for generations because of her.”
Remembering “Mother” Leola LaVassar: More than just a survivor
Born on September 29, 1905, LaVassar’s impact in Greenwood spanned nearly a century until she passed away on September 30, 1992. Married at the age of 23, she lost a son in infancy, and when her husband died, LaVassar dedicated the rest of her life to taking care of her four daughters, the community and the church.
After obtaining a degree in Home Economics from First Kansas State Teacher’s College, she gained valuable experience at Oklahoma’s only HBCU, Langston University. For thirty years she worked as a nutritionist at Tulsa schools, supporting students regardless of their ability to pay for lunch.
“Hey baby, it’s alright,” Townsend said she would tell students who didn’t have enough lunch money. “They called her “mother” LaVassar because of that. That warm nature.”
For the rest of her life, LaVassar gave her all to the women’s choir, midweek service prayer band and Sunday school at First Baptist Church North Tulsa, the only church that survived the destruction the white mob orchestrated against Greenwood.
After her death, the Oklahoma Eagle, a historic Black newspaper in Tulsa’s Greenwood District, gave her a tribute that illustrated the community’s love for LaVassar.
“For many of us, probably thousands, it is impossible to think of our early school days as north Tulsa children without memories of Mrs. LaVassar as the surrogate “mother-away-from-home,’ the Eagle wrote.
Massacre survivor “Mother” Leola LaVassar was a friend of Dick Rowland
The systematic and quick destruction of Greenwood on May 31, 1921 resulted in the killling of up to 300 Black men, women and children, according to the Tulsa Historical Society. In addition, the mob destroyed 1,256 homes and hundreds of business. The speed and orchestration of the racial domestic terror attack raises questions about whether it was planned.
Yet most historians mark the interaction between 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black boy, and 17-year-old Sarah Page, a white girl, in an elevator as the spark for the Massacre. Nevertheless, many Greenwood elders of the community who were teenagers during the attack remember their classmate, Dick Rowland, including Leola LaVassar. According to Townsend, 16-year-old Booker T. Washington student Leola LaVassar enjoyed skating with her classmate Dick Rowland.
Though Townsend was just three years old when his great grandmother passed away, stories from older relatives paint a picture of a carefree teenager who enjoyed the safety and beauty of her community, a place where she had everything she needed.
“She remembered the walks on summer nights down Greenwood on the way home from Dreamland Theatre or Ms. Jackson’s Hamburger King or Floyd’s Beanery or hot dogs at the Coney Island,” Townsend said.
The comfort and safety of the community vanished overnight amid the burning scent of bombs and gunpowder.
The heartless white mob burned down teenage LaVassar’s home, along with over 1,200 others in Greenwood, and she was forced to flee for her life.
“She and her family had to literally run for safety. Her dad Matthew Johnson, who they called “Papa,” told them all to run!” Townsend said.
Continuing a rich legacy
To this day, the City of Tulsa continues to deny reparations to the three last known living survivors of the Massacre (“Mother” Viola Ford Fletcher, 109, “Mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, and “Uncle Redd” Hughes Van Ellis, 102) and their descendants.
For her part, Townsend says he knows exactly how his great grandmother would feel about restitution for the century-old crime.
“If she were alive today I think that there’s no reason why she wouldn’t be supportive of restoration and the economic reparation or payback for what was taken,” Townsend said.
The opportunity to honor his ancestor and detail “Mother” Leola LaVassar’s impactful legacy meant everything to Townsend and the relatives who joined him at First Baptist Church North Tulsa.
“To be able to tell her story and carry it into a new generation, I was honored to be the one they trusted,” Townsend said. “Our ancestors certainly paved the way and led lives of great example for us to follow.”
With a baby girl of his own on the way, Townsend believes his great grandmother’s story is one that should be shared with the world.
“I’m expecting a little girl, a daughter in September. She’s definitely gonna get that info and education in a way that’s honest, open, transparent and hopefully inspiring.
When it comes to the attack on Black history through book bans and discussion-limiting legislation, the educator believes ensuring young people know these stories is crucial to their self-worth, including his own daughter’s.
“She came from somewhere. She came from somebody,” Townsend said.