“The massacre was one of the most heinous acts of racial terrorism committed in the U.S. by those in power against Black people since slavery,” said Damario Solomon-Simmons, one of the lead attorneys working on the case. “White elected officials and business leaders not only failed to repair the injuries they caused, they engaged in conduct to deepen the injury and block repair.”
The lead plaintiff in the case is 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle, one of the last living survivors of the massacre. Others are descendants of witnesses to the carnage, including Ellouise Cochrane-Price, the daughter of massacre survivor Clarence Rowland and the cousin of Dick Rowland, the teenager whose arrest in 1921 for allegedly assaulting a white woman sparked the attack. The accusation was false but the violence that followed was catastrophic.
Survivors have sought reparations through the courts before. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a reparations case appeal, ending the previous effort.
Simmons said lawyers are pursuing a new legal strategy. They decided to use the “public nuisance” argument after Oklahoma recently successfully used the argument in a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, claiming the pharmaceutical company created a public nuisance with misleading marketing and promotion of opioids, leading to one of the worst drug epidemics in U.S. history. In August 2019, a Cleveland County District judge ordered the drug company to pay $572 million to repair the destruction caused by the opioid epidemic in Oklahoma.
“Once we saw the state of Oklahoma was successful with the opioid case using the ‘public nuisance’ theory, we thought it was a theory that could work in our case,” Simmons said. “We feel confident that city and state officials created a public nuisance by failing to protect Black people during the massacre.”
The lawsuit identifies seven entities or organizations that were directly involved in the massacre, including the city, county, state National Guard and Tulsa Chamber of Commerce.
“The city police department and the county sheriff’s office deputized and armed white Tulsans to murder, loot, and burn the nearly 40 city blocks of the Greenwood District,” according to the lawsuit. “The State National Guard participated with this angry white mob in killing and looting and destroying the property of Black residents of Greenwood. The city, sheriff, chamber, and county targeted Black community leaders and victims of the massacre for prosecution as instigators of the massacre — despite knowing who were truly responsible.”
The lawsuit accuses the chamber of joining with other officials after the massacre to impose martial law and round up survivors into “internment camps, only releasing them to work if sponsored by white employers.”
A spokesperson for Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) said the city does not comment on pending litigation.
The Tulsa Race Massacre, which began on May 31, 1921, was one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. Witnesses recounted seeing airplanes above Greenwood dropping turpentine bombs.
“They tried to kill all the black folks they could see,” a survivor, George Monroe, recalled.
Survivors reported seeing bodies tossed into the muddy Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains, making it difficult to account for the dead. The city has reopened the investigation into whether there are mass graves from the massacre, digging earlier this summer in Oaklawn Cemetery. So far, no mass graves have been found.
On June 1, 1921, martial law was declared. Troops rounded up Black survivors and detained them in camps throughout the city.
“The law enforcement’s response may not be a primary cause of the massacre, but their actions once the violence began made the situation more deadly,” according to the Oklahoma History Center. “The police chief deputized 500 men, all white, from the crowd that gathered as a potential lynch mob. He gave them weapons and sent them out to ‘deal’ with the situation as they saw fit. These newly empowered men looted, burned, and killed with that police authority.”
“At certain points in the hours-long conflict,” the center said, “the National Guard also shot at African American residents in coordination with other white attackers.”
For decades afterward, people in Tulsa avoided discussing what had happened. No one was ever arrested for the violence. Now the city is preparing to mark the 100-anniversary of the massacre.
The Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of Vernon A.M.E. Church, which is one of the plaintiffs in the case, said he hopes the lawsuit can win reparations for survivors of the massacre and their descendants. He has been staging a weekly protest for reparations outside Tulsa City Hall for more than two years.
“This lawsuit means that no longer will we stand idly by while Tulsa, the very city that perpetuated the Race Massacre of 1921, continues to profit off the same massacre it perpetrated,” Turner said. “We refuse to allow Greenwood to be turned into a tourist site when it is a crime scene.”
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