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Opinion In Tulsa, the movement for reparations scores a historic victory

Welcome back to my newsletter! Today, I’m in Alabama on a reporting trip about the battles that midwives are facing here as they seek to provide care in a post-Roe v. Wade world. Stay tuned.

One reason I launched this newsletter was to start a conversation on the theme of liberation — a space for and about those fighting for personal and political freedom. Living in Texas right now, I feel as though the front lines in those battles crisscross all around me. From racial justice to LGBTQ rights to women’s bodily autonomy, America’s democratic, social and spiritual conflicts are rearing up across the South. I want to highlight the people working against historic odds and systemic injustice in this region, which brings me to the subject of this week’s newsletter.

Let me introduce you to one of them …

In conversation: Damario Solomon-Simmons

Last summer, I traveled to Tulsa to write dispatches from the events marking the centennial of the 1921 race massacre there, when white hordes descended on the Black district of Greenwood, slaughtering residents and burning homes and businesses. I went back to observe the search for mass graves and possible victims of the massacre. For decades, White leaders in Tulsa actively hid what happened, and even many Tulsans didn’t know their own history.

Thankfully, over the past few years, much more attention has been paid to the events of 1921, as well as to the long fight for reparations for massacre survivors and descendants of the victims. Justice begins with awareness.

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One question stuck out to me as I covered some of the (oddly) festive commemorative events around the centennial: What would happen when the media spotlight moved on?

A year later, the good news is that there have been positive — even historically monumental — developments in the quest for justice and answers in Tulsa.

In May, a judge allowed a reparations lawsuit brought by the attack’s last living survivors to go forward. Then, this month, the suit was allowed to go to the discovery phase. It’s the first time in U.S. history that a lawsuit filed by Black victims of such historic white terrorism has progressed this far.

The bad news, though, is that too little attention has been paid to what these milestones mean for racial justice in America.

To shed light on these developments, I caught up with Damario Solomon-Simmons, one of the lawyers representing the survivors. Here’s some of our conversation, edited lightly for clarity.

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Attiah: In May, a judge ruled that the lawsuit brought by the few remaining survivors of the Tulsa massacre could move forward. Can you describe what the scene in the courtroom was like that day?

Solomon-Simmons: I promise you, it was something out of a movie. There were literally hundreds of people in the courtroom. Obviously, a lot of community members here in Tulsa came. But also Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee came down. I saw civil rights icon and lawyer Barbara Arnwine and her group. At the end of the hearing when the judge said she was going to deny the defendant’s motion to dismiss, I never felt that type of joy in a professional setting. I didn’t really realize it but I actually started jumping. There were a lot of tears of joy. It was electric.

Attiah: Why is this new phase such a big deal?

Solomon-Simmons: To go to discovery is something that is of immense importance not only for this case but for the knowledge and the education of the massacre itself. Now, at this point, we only know probably 5 or 10 percent of what actually occurred during the massacre, because most of the information has been hidden by the white perpetrators.

Discovery means that we have the opportunity to get documents that we’ve never had access to. This means we have the opportunity to retain the foremost experts in the areas that we’re going to be looking into — the health issues, land-use issues, economic issues and a host of social issues that we deal with. We can get expert reports to say, this is what happened during the massacre, this is how it impacts the Tulsa community today, and this is what it would take to fix that, abate that — reparations, restoration, whatever you want to call it.

It also gives us the opportunity to get deposition testimony from the representatives of the defendants who perpetrated the massacre. To get them under oath about what their records actually say and what their actual position is.

Attiah: And just for clarity, who is the “they” that you are speaking of when it comes to the defendants? Who is named in the suit?

Solomon-Simmons: Originally, we sued seven defendants, now a handful are still in the case — the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, the Oklahoma Military Department, the National Guard and the Tulsa Regional Chamber.

Attiah: When I came to visit Tulsa last year for the centennial events, there were all these promises of healing and reconciliation. What have the reactions to the lawsuit been like since then?

Solomon-Simmons: What we found is that people thought this issue was over with after the big party in 2021. That everybody could just sing “Kumbaya.” And they would say all types of things about how the massacre still impacts life today.

But once we had a real, live case, then folks were like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, let’s take that back! We’re happy to give you murals, we’re happy to do park benches, plant unity trees, we’re happy to have little discussion panels … but you want us to actually give you your land back? You want us to pay you for the property that was destroyed, the businesses that were destroyed, the lives that were destroyed? You want us to say that, yes, we were actually wrong and we need to atone, for real? Oh, we have a problem with this.” All of this was obviously coming from the white power structure.

But also there are Black people, what I like to call “exceptional Negroes,” that they put into positions to give them cover. We saw a lot of these exceptional Negroes saying, “Why are you bringing this lawsuit? Why are you making Mister Charlie mad?”

They were saying this would never work. That this was a waste of time or a PR stunt. So it feels really good to be where we are now.

Attiah: There’s a sense of urgency, right? Like a feeling that the white power structure is trying to run out the clock on the aging survivors to avoid accountability.

Solomon-Simmons: After the May ruling, we had to wait three months just to get the written order. We hate to talk about this, but we have to talk about this: Our clients are over 100 years old. Viola Fletcher is 108 years old, Lessie Benningfield Randle is 107 years old, and Hughes Van Ellis is 102. We need to be moving with deliberate speed. We’re hoping that Tulsa County judge Caroline Wall understands the moment and does not put our case to any more delays. But we know that that is something that the defendants are going to try.

When I first started this work 25 years ago, there were hundreds of survivors still alive. I got the chance to work and travel with so many of them. And now to only be down to three living survivors — the urgency is for real, this needs to happen now. We want these people to see justice in their lifetime.

Attiah: I’m thinking of the Red Summer of 1919, when massacres and white terrorist violence happened in so many other places. Have you and the Tulsa team heard from lawyers and Black survivors in other states and are you all helping them too?

Solomon-Simmons: We have. We’ve heard from people out of Texas, out of Elaine, Arkansas. We haven’t engaged formally with anyone because we’ve just been so focused on this issue and everything we’ve got going on here in Tulsa. But we definitely are happy to talk to anyone.

It’s not just about the legalities. The Justice for Greenwood project also has things going on outside of litigation, like oral history projects and education initiatives. I’m very proud of the team that we have a separate national team of lawyers, academics and activists. It really shows how you pull together diverse skill sets and create a movement.

Home front: Black wealth still under attack

The Tulsa race riot was 101 years ago. But a story out of Maryland from Debra Kamin of the New York Times this week underscores how white supremacy continues to rob Black people who are trying to build wealth.

Nathan Connolly, an expert on housing discrimination, and his wife, Shani Mott, were denied a refinance loan after their house was valued at $472,000, well below what they expected given market conditions. So the couple, both faculty members at Johns Hopkins University, swept their house of family photos and other potential signifiers of their race, enlisted a White family to stand in for them, and applied again elsewhere. The result: a valuation of $750,000.

Kamin reports that the vast majority of appraisers in the United States — more than 97 percent — are White, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The couple is suing the appraiser and lender responsible for the first valuation.

It goes to show, doesn’t matter how nice your house is, or how many degrees you have as a Black person; discrimination can come to your doorstep at any time.

Fun zone: My big birthday jump

I skydived for the first time last weekend, and it was (mostly) amazing! I’ll write about it next week.

Cat’s corner: Artemis’s gravity tests

The day before I jumped from a plane, Artemis nearly gave me a heart attack. His patio privileges are now restricted.

Thanks for reading. See you next week!

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