Why This Donor Was Inspired to Step Up for Tulsa Race Massacre Victims

Why This Donor Was Inspired to Step Up for Tulsa Race Massacre Victims

As with Juneteenth, long celebrated annually in June by Black Texans, it is only in the last few years that historical realities of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 have been widely recognized. The terrorist act involved a white mob’s planned destruction of the Greenwood District, a prominent Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street. On May 31, Tulsa will remember 103 years since the massacre.

In recent years, efforts have been underway to right past wrongs in Tulsa. That includes the final few living descendants suing for reparations with the help of a New York City law firm, and a forensic investigation seeking to identify victims. On the philanthropic front, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, established in 2021, raised $20 million toward the construction and start-up operations of the Greenwood Rising History Center, which honors the legacy of Black Wall Street.

One donor particularly moved after finding out about the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre is New York entrepreneur Ed Mitzen. Mitzen sold a “big piece” of his company in 2020, and with his wife Lisa, really leaned into philanthropy — including support for Tulsa Race Massacre victims. To that end, he made a $1 million gift in 2022 to the three centenarian survivors of the massacre.

IP recently connected with Mitzen to find out more about what inspired the gift, his thoughts about how other people with privilege can step up as we mark 103 years since the massacre, and more about Mitzen’s other giving through Business for Good, which engages in venture philanthropy.

“It felt like the state was running the clock out”

Growing up in a small farm town in rural New York, Mitzen is founder and CEO of Fingerpaint Marketing, a healthcare-focused marketing company. After graduating from college, he lived in what he describes as a “cockroach-infested apartment” in downtown Albany, New York. He was trying to get a job in the medical field and ended up working at a hospital, taking home $600 per month. “I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a phone,” Mitzen said.

Things today look a lot different for Mitzen. “I’ve got a second home and everything a guy could want,” he said. So a few years ago, he and Lisa decided to sell a chunk of the company and focus on other things — including philanthropy. To that end, they launched Business for Good, which has distributed over $9 million to date, mainly toward community development in the greater Albany area. “[We give] a lot in communities that have been left behind and [we] use our business experience to help people get up the income curve,” Mitzen said.

Mitzen calls his foray into Tulsa an “outlier,” both in terms of geographic region and scale. He came across the reporting of DeNeen L. Brown, who has been writing about Tulsa in the Washington Post since 2021, including about then-107-year-old Viola Fletcher’s testimony before Congress. Like many others, Mitzen was struck that he was never taught about the massacre when he was growing up and barely knew about the event. He was also struck by the fact that no insurance company honored the claims of the families of victims.

“I read this article where the three survivors, [who] were all in their 100s, were going to court to get the right to take the state the court. And it just pissed me off,” Mitzen said. “It felt like the state was running the clock out and just hoping that these people would die and then they wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.”

Forging connections

The Mitzens decided they wanted to act. Mitzen got in touch with Brown, who connected him with State Rep. Regina Goodwin, a Tulsa native who grew up on historic Greenwood Avenue. Goodwin invited the Mitzens to Tulsa, where they met with the survivors and their families, including Hughes Van Ellis, whom he affectionately called “Uncle Red.”

“Uncle Red basically shook my hand with tears in his eyes and said he had waited for this day for his whole life,” Mitzen said. While Mitzen knows that it’s been more than a century since the massacre, he thought it was important that the survivors felt seen and heard.

While other outlets, including CNN, have framed Mitzen’s donation as part of the massacre survivors’ broader fight for reparations, Mitzen clarified that he and Lisa simply wanted to give a gift. “[It’s] just a gesture that they matter, right? And we’re sorry. I also wanted to shame the government out there for not doing something,” Mitzen said, adding that what would amount to a “rounding error” on the state budget could do something deeply meaningful for these families.

Mitzen has stayed in touch with the survivors, meeting them in person several times. When Hughes Van Ellis died last year at the age of 102, Mitzen went down to speak at his repast. And when Viola Fletcher turned 110 the other week, the Mitzens sent their well wishes. For people he’s only met a handful of times, he’s struck by how meaningful his connection is with them.

Six months after the donation, the Mitzens returned to Tulsa with Black Theatre United, cofounded by legendary actress Vanessa Williams. The couple have supported the organization through the years. Mitzen, Williams and several other performers met Uncle Red and some of the other survivors. “It’s just been a really special journey with them,” Mitzen said.

The Mitzens’ other giving

Rather than just writing checks, the Mitzens take a hands-on approach with their philanthropy. They want to go out, meet people and be active in the process. This applies to their work down in Tulsa, but also through their broader philanthropy via Business for Good. One of the organizations it supports is Wellspring, a domestic violence shelter in Saratoga Springs, New York. Business for Good helped create a new building for the shelter, which will now host more job skills training, financial literacy courses and other services to help domestic violence survivors.

Other grantees have included Allie B’s Cozy Kitchen, a restaurant with a mobile truck, Lincoln Park Pool (a $1 million donation), and Frank Chapman Memorial Institute, home of a basketball and mentoring program for inner-city youth. Lisa, in the mortgage business for years, also has a deep passion for animals. The family made a $1 million donation to Mohawk Hudson Humane Society to create the Lisa Mitzen Animal Care Center.

Mitzen also wrote a book, “Wealthy and White: Why Guys Like Me Have to Show Up, Step Up, and Give Others a Hand Up,” where he unpacks his privilege and makes a case for why others with privilege need to give back. “Wealthy businesspeople, and traditionally that means white guys, have to do more in their communities,” he said. “We’ve seen that the work that we do works. My philosophy is that you’re not going to solve hunger with more food pantries. We need to get people up the income curve.”

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