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Judge allows lawsuit by Tulsa Race Massacre survivors to proceed

Lessie Benningfield Randle, a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, attends a hearing at a county courthouse on May 2. (Stephen Pingry/AP)
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A judge ruled Monday that a lawsuit demanding reparations for survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and their descendants can move forward. The ruling comes more than 100 years after the massacre killed as many as 300 Black people, injured 800 and left more than 10,000 without homes in one of the worst incidents of racist terror violence in U.S. history.

In a standing-only courtroom, Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall ruled, in part, against a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which calls for the city to redress the ongoing harm and damage caused by the massacre in the all-Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa.

“This is absolutely amazing,” said civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, the lead attorney in the lawsuit. “We all stood on the shoulders of ancestors who started fighting for Greenwood” in 1921.

The devastation of the Tulsa Race Massacre

“I am quivering with emotion,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) told a crowd standing in the courthouse after the hearing. “I am not a descendant of these souls who are buried in the soil in Greenwood, many unidentified to this day. But I take that to Washington. Sitting here, listening to the eloquence of the arguments, methodically block by block — I want the nation to hear this decision.”

Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin (D), whose district includes Greenwood, said: “The case remains alive and the survivors get a chance to fight another day for justice. Not only are the survivors fighting, but descendants are fighting. Each new generation will fight with the same fervor as our ancestors until long-overdue justice is won.”

The lead plaintiffs in the case are three of the known living survivors of the massacre: Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107; Viola Fletcher, 107; and Hughes Van Ellis, 101. They attended the hearing Monday afternoon.

The lawsuit, which was filed in September 2020, claims the city, the county, the Oklahoma National Guard and other officials caused “public nuisances” in 1921, when they did not defend the Black community from a White mob that descended on Greenwood, a community so prosperous that it was called Black Wall Street.

City officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Solomon-Simmons said the massacre was one of “the most heinous acts of racial terrorism committed in the United States by those in power against Black people since slavery. 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.”

Survivors have sought reparations through the courts before. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a reparations case appeal after federal courts ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. Dozens of survivors stood dejected outside the Supreme Court after that ruling.

“Should any form of justice be granted, that would be a start,” Ike Howard, a grandson of Fletcher, said Monday.

The lawsuit identifies seven entities or organizations that it alleges were directly involved in the massacre, including the city, county, state National Guard and Tulsa Chamber of Commerce.

‘They was killing black people’: In Tulsa, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history still haunts the city

“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,” the lawsuit states. “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 “concentration camps,” only releasing them if White employers sponsored them to work.

The Tulsa Race Massacre began on May 31, 1921. Amid the violence, witnesses recounted seeing airplanes above Greenwood dropping turpentine bombs and bodies being tossed into the muddy Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains.

“They tried to kill all the Black folks they could see,” a survivor, George Monroe, recalled.

The city has reopened the investigation into whether there are mass graves from the massacre, digging earlier this summer in Oaklawn Cemetery. A mass grave containing as many as 35 coffins was found there in October 2020. Scientists are in the process of examining remains that were exhumed and, and according to city officials, plan to test for DNA matches with any descendants.

On June 1, 1921, martial law was declared. Troops rounded up Black survivors at gunpoint and marched them to “internment 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,” the Oklahoma History Center stated. “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.”

No White person was ever arrested or charged in the massacre.

Last year, Fletcher and her brother Ellis testified before Congress in Washington. “I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home,” Fletcher said. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams.”

Fletcher added: “I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not. And other survivors do not. And our descendants do not.”

Her brother, a 100-year-old World War II veteran, told the congressional subcommittee how he fought for the United States overseas but had not received justice in the United States.

“Please do not let me leave this earth without justice,” Ellis said, “like all the other massacre survivors.”

Dreisen Heath, a racial justice researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the Tulsa courtroom on Monday afternoon was overflowing with about 200 people, sitting on benches, lining the aisles and walls, waiting to hear whether the case would move forward. They listened intently to the legal arguments. At times, there were audible gasps.

“There has been 101 years of injustice,” Heath said. “Tulsa is a microcosm of the U.S. If we get it right in Tulsa, we have the opportunity to achieve transformative justice and repair elsewhere.”