One-hundred-one years after the fact — but mere weeks after yet another act of racist terrorism claimed the lives of 10 Black people in Buffalo — the three remaining survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre finally got some real recompense.
Centenarians Viola Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle and Hughes Van Ellis are the last three living Black Tulsa residents who witnessed the violent destruction of the majority-Black neighborhood of Greenwood, a prosperous area known at the time as “Black Wall Street,” at the hands of a white mob.
Over a period of two days, as many as 300 Black residents were murdered, thousands of businesses were torched, and nearly 10,000 people were left homeless. No white person was ever arrested or charged, and the tragedy was largely unknown across the U.S. until recently; attempts to secure reparations for the survivors from city and state coffers have proven futile.
“It felt like the powers that be in the state were trying to run out the clock on these people,” said Ed Mitzen in the New York Times. Based in Saratoga Springs, New York, Mitzen and his family have no known personal connection to the events in Tulsa a century ago. And yet, they’re the ones who finally gave Fletcher, Randle and Van Ellis substantive compensation in the form of a $1 million donation to benefit the three survivors and their families.
It’s a story we see all too often in American philanthropy: private wealth taking on an injustice that government has been unwilling or unable to tackle. And while it falls short of the broad-based repair and healing advocates are calling for — the donors stress that this is not the same as reparations, which the survivors are still seeking — it’s nonetheless an encouraging sign, and maybe a step in the right direction, onee that more donors can take.
“We just want to help”
Ed and Lisa Mitzen, who are white, are providing the funding through the Business for Good Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) grantmaking organization they formed in 2020. Founded on wealth derived from the success of several healthcare marketing companies Ed Mitzen started, the family’s growing philanthropy is centered in and around the Albany capital region of New York.
“We are just trying to help some people. We are not trying to be white saviors or political grandstanders. We just want to help,” Mitzen told the Washington Post.
Though the Mitzens’ gesture was well-received, the fact that it took donors from upstate New York to finally compensate the Tulsa centenarians doesn’t reflect so well on philanthropic giving closer to home. The donation is also no replacement for broader, government-funded reparations for racial violence and racial injustices, including but not limited to slavery. That is a cause that still faces significant headwinds, despite an uptick in philanthropic support that IP recently highlighted.
According to Ed Mitzen, the family was inspired to give to these three strangers living more than a thousand miles away after reading an article by Washington Post journalist Deneen L. Brown about the survivors’ thwarted efforts to receive just compensation. When Mitzen reached out to Brown, she put him in touch with the Oklahoma state representative for the Historic Greenwood District, Regina Goodwin. Goodwin then facilitated a meeting to discuss the donation, which will flow through a nonprofit entity called Tulsa S.T.E.P.S. (Serving To Empower People Successfully), which has handled fundraising for massacre survivors in the past.
The three recipients will split the $1 million equally, and one relative expressed hopes that the resources will help them live better and travel a bit during their final years. Some of it is also going toward college education for the three survivors’ younger relatives.
Business for Good
The donors’ story has been a local one until now. The Mitzens’ big gift for the Tulsa massacre survivors is their foundation’s first significant contribution outside New York State.
A serial entrepreneur, Ed Mitzen founded several successful businesses in the healthcare communications field, including Creative Healthcare Solutions, Palio (later sold to InVentive Health, where Mitzen worked for a time) and Fingerpaint Marketing, where he’s currently CEO. Lisa Mitzen, whom Ed met in Saratoga Springs, New York, worked in mortgage leasing and now pursues causes like community service, animal rights and fighting homelessness.
The couple founded the Business for Good Foundation in 2020 with an initial contribution of about $12.2 million. Today, the growing organization boasts a staff of 10 and says it has given $5.4 million “across New York State so far.” In addition to Ed and Lisa, the couple’s children Grace, Emily and Nick round out an all-family board.
Business for Good describes itself as a venture philanthropy. Its work has partly focused on buying local businesses and operating them such that some or all of their profits go toward charity — hence the name of the organization. The inspiration for that approach apparently came from Ed Mitzen’s time on the board of Double H Ranch, co-founded by Paul Newman. Famously, Newman’s Own operates on a similar model, donating profits to charity.
Supporting racial equity in entrepreneurship has also been a notable priority for the Mitzens. Business for Good provides support for local entrepreneurs, including a Black female-led law practice.
On the grantmaking side, Business for Good’s beneficiaries include arts groups, homeless services, and several racial justice organizations, including Capital District LATINOS and Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. Business for Good also gave $350,000 to sustain the Albany Black Chamber, a new chamber of commerce that unites two existing chambers founded to promote Black- and Latino-owned businesses. Animal rights and advocacy is also a big focus for the Mitzens — earlier this year, they gave $1 million to the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society, the largest gift in its history.
This isn’t reparations
Aside from their donation to the Tulsa survivors, the Mitzens’ philanthropy is local, and may well stay that way. On the other hand, Business for Good’s press release announcing the gift starts with a declaration that the organization’s philanthropic scope “knows no bounds,” so who can tell? The national spotlight on the Tulsa gift — and recent recognition in Fast Company — suggest that this family funder may be looking to broaden its horizons.
Still, Ed Mitzen has been insistent that the Tulsa donation doesn’t constitute reparations. What might do so — and what has since proven elusive — is monetary compensation from municipal or state authorities, a goal that the three centenarian survivors and descendants of victims continue to pursue via litigation.
There is something perhaps unsatisfying about such philanthropic patches, in lieu of broader reparative acts, and there are differing viewpoints among reparations advocates as to whether government is the sole actor owing such payments. But the Mitzens’ gift isn’t the only recent case where a private donor or institution has offered some form of targeted recompense for past racial injustice. The Decolonizing Wealth Project’s Liberated Capital fund, for example, follows a “reparations model” aimed at liberation and racial healing. We also recently covered the growing “land tax” movement, in which institutions operating on traditional tribal lands make recurring payments to Native American communities.
Meanwhile, Tulsa’s philanthropic community hasn’t been entirely silent on the matter. Some local grantmakers, like the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, have taken a similar route as the Mitzens in New York, backing racial equity in entrepreneurship. Another funder, the Zarrow Family Foundation, formed a fund to honor victims and combat social injustice impacting people of color in the region. Funders have also signed on to efforts like last year’s 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, a donor-designated fund formed in remembrance of the tragedy.
Coming as it has from across the country, the Mitzens’ gift is another hopeful sign that the national erasure of one of the 20th century’s worst episodes of racist violence is at an end. But even as national grantmakers like MacArthur, Hewlett, Omidyar and the William T. Grant Foundation continue to back the broader reparations movement, it’s incumbent on local funders to interrogate their own histories and ask how they can support survivors of racist violence — and those survivors’ descendants — in their own backyards.