An Oklahoma judge ruled Monday that a lawsuit seeking reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre can proceed, bringing new hope for some measure of justice for three survivors of the deadly racist rampage who are now over 100 years old and were in the courtroom for the decision.
Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall ruled against a motion to dismiss the suit filed by civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons in 2020. The Tulsa-based attorney said after Wall announced her ruling that it is critical for living survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107, Viola Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, 101.
“We want them to see justice in their lifetime,” he said, choking back tears. “I’ve seen so many survivors die in my 20-plus years working on this issue. I just don’t want to see the last three die without justice. That’s why the time is of the essence.”
The packed courtroom, which Wall noted may have been over capacity, erupted in cheers and tears after she handed down her ruling.
Solomon-Simmons sued under Oklahoma's public nuisance law, saying the actions of the white mob that killed hundreds of Black residents and destroyed what had been the nation’s most prosperous Black business district continue to affect the city today. The lawsuit also seeks reparations for descendants of victims of the massacre.
“In public nuisance cases, it is clear either criminal acts or destruction of personal property” constitute a nuisance, said Eric Miller, a Loyola Marymount University law professor working with the plaintiffs. Miller said that racial and economic disparities resulting from the massacre continue to this day.
Chamber of Commerce attorney John Tucker said the massacre was horrible, but the nuisance is not ongoing.
“What happened in 1921 was a really bad deal, and those people did not get a fair shake ... but that was 100 years ago,” Tucker said.
Oklahoma sued consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson using the state public nuisance law for its role in the deadly opioid crisis. Initially, a judge ordered the drugmaker to pay the state $465 million in damages. But the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the Johnson & Johnson verdict, ruling that the public nuisance law did not apply because the company had no control of the drug after it was sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and physicians’ offices and then prescribed by doctors to patients.
Miller said the state court's ruling in the Johnson & Johnson case does not affect the lawsuit.
The massacre happened when an angry white mob descended on a 35-block area in Tulsa's Greenwood District, killing people and looting and burning businesses and homes. Thousands of people were left homeless and living in a hastily constructed internment camp.
The city and insurance companies never compensated victims for their losses, and the massacre ultimately resulted in racial and economic disparities that still exist today, the lawsuit claims. In the years following the massacre, according to the lawsuit, city and county officials actively thwarted the community’s effort to rebuild and neglected the Greenwood and predominantly Black north Tulsa community in favor of overwhelmingly white parts of Tulsa.
Other defendants include the Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners, Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, Tulsa County Sheriff and the Oklahoma Military Department.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive damages and calls for the creation of a hospital in north Tulsa, in addition to mental health and education programs and a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund.
The massacre received renewed attention in recent years after then-President Donald Trump selected Tulsa as the location for a 2020 campaign rally amid the ongoing racial reckoning over police brutality and racial violence. Trump moved the date of his June rally to avoid coinciding with a Juneteenth celebration in the city’s Greenwood District commemorating the end of slavery.
Associated Press writer Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed to this report.
This version corrects the spelling of Van Ellis’ first name to Hughes instead of Hugh.