April 12, 2024

Survivors of the Tulsa massacre are making another push for justice with the lawsuit before the Oklahoma Supreme Court

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has heard oral arguments from survivors and descendants of the Tulsa massacre as they push for reparations in a last-ditch legal effort.

The last surviving victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — who date back more than a century — have fought hard to have their say in court, demanding reparations after black residents claimed the city subjected them to a brutal racist attack and dozens years of neglect.

Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Fletcher, both 109, appeared before the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday in an effort to appeal for reparations after suffering a violent massacre of black residents in Greenwood, Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street.

“They were very focused,” attorney Sara Solfanelli told The Daily Beast, referring to the survivors as “Mothers” Randall and Fletcher. “They are completely behind us. They knew exactly where they were and what was going on. They were excited to be there. They have been paying close attention and really know what is happening in a way that they feel is very strong about this case.”

“We are grateful that our now-weary bodies endured long enough to witness an America and an Oklahoma that offers Race Massacre survivors the opportunity to access the justice system,” Randle and Fletcher previously said in a joint statement . “Many have gone before us who have knocked and banged on the courthouse doors, only to be turned around or never let in through the door.”

“Now our pursuit of justice is in the hands of our Oklahoma Supreme Court. They have the power to open the doors of justice and give us the opportunity to prove our case.”

The legal team of Randle and Fletcher wants the Oklahoma Supreme Court to take the case to trial so that survivors can tell Greenwood’s true story and how it affected generations after the attack.

“We will show you how the current state of affairs in Greenwood goes back to the massacre,” attorney Randall Adams told The Daily Beast. “Without a trial … the sheriff’s department can stand up and claim, ‘This is the truth.’ Don’t even let them have a trial.’ It’s so insulting in that respect.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, lead attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons explained to the court why the case did not specifically relate to 1921 and how the attack had lasting consequences for more than a century.

“It doesn’t matter that the massacre happened in 1921. The point is that the building is still destroyed. There are still buildings vacant. “The public nuisance continues, causing the Greenwood neighborhood to suffer in health, safety, comfort and tranquility or to feel less safe,” he said. “You have defendants who have never been held legally responsible for the massacre. And to this day, these defendants denied committing the massacre. They deny that they have caused public nuisance. They deny that they have any legal responsibility to clean up the public nuisance that is the blighted Greenwood neighborhood they have created.”

But Solomon-Simmons also made sure to emphasize how important it was that the survivors of the original attack were still there to share their experiences.

“These two claimants… are the only two living survivors of the massacre. No one else in the world has the injuries they have,” he said. “We want these two survivors to see justice in their lifetimes.”

Randle and Fletcher, along with survivor Hughes Van Ellis Sr., who died in October 2023, initially filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa, the Tulsa Regional Chamber, the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners, the Tulsa Sheriff’s Office and the Oklahoma City . Military Department in 2020. However, District Judge Caroline Wall in Tulsa dismissed the case with prejudice in July 2023.

According to local ABC 5 Oklahoma City, attorneys for Randle and Fletcher filed an appeal in August, and in February the Oklahoma Supreme Court decided to hear the case.

“It breaks my heart that even after suffering a state-sponsored atrocity and its demoralizing aftermath, the last two survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre are devoting what fleeting time they have left to a fight that the defendants hope will their spirit will break,” Solomon said. Simmons previously said in a statement. “But the city of Tulsa’s shameful plan won’t work.”

Journalist Victor Luckerson, who has looked deep into the history and consequences of the Tulsa massacre, said the case sets a precedent for similar stories about systemic racism and its generational effects.

“If you look at it in a macroeconomic sense, Tulsa and Oklahoma as a state have been trying to deny responsibility for what happened in Greenwood for over 100 years,” Luckerson told The Daily Beast in an interview. “The fact that these arguments can persist for so long illustrates the fact that the city is an institution [had] never really took full responsibility for what happened in Greenwood.

The Tulsa Massacre was sparked in 1921 when a young black shoeshine boy was accused of assaulting a white teenage girl while working at a hotel. Although there was never any evidence to support the charges, the young man was arrested and rumors spread that a white mob planned to snatch him from the local jail and lynch him. Black residents heard about the plan and tried to intervene, marching to the jail to protect the shoeshine boy. But all hell broke loose after a shot was fired, and the entire affluent black neighborhood of Greenwood was engulfed in flames.

Businesses were demolished, homes were looted, and black residents who were not murdered were forced to live in a makeshift internment camp in the city. They had to adhere to a curfew and be given a pass to leave, like slaves on plantations. Insurance companies abandoned black residents and business owners, and Greenwood was never fully rebuilt to its original size. Instead, it was reconstructed into a series of shanties that the city eventually took over over a one-year period urban renewal plan of the 1970s because the area was considered too devastated and a an eyesore for the rest of Tulsa.

According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, about 300 people may have died, 800 were injured and mass graves continue to be discovered.

The Brookings Institution reported that Greenwood, or Black Wall Street, suffered damages of more than $27 million in today’s money.

‘I do not think so [I] Until I came across this case, I understood how powerful real generational trauma is and how the massacre absolutely impacted who they are and how they were raised,” Solfanelli explained. “[Descendants’] great-grandparents or their grandparents or parents who survived were too afraid to talk about it, but how it permeated their lives.

Luckerson, the author of Built from Fire: The Epic Story of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, America’s Black Wall Street (2023), said that during much of his research he discovered that many of the original lawsuits filed by Black residents just after the 1922 and 1923 massacre were similar to what survivors and descendants want today.

“Especially with this lawsuit, I thought it was interesting that the lawsuit goes beyond the scope of the racial mass murders,” Luckerson added. “It’s about urban renewal. … It’s about the history centers and museums and about the kind of monetization of the massacre and who gets to monetize it.”

Luckerson made an important point of it Built from fire to not focus solely on the act of massacre itself. Instead, he transcends the violence and how it perpetuates in Tulsa’s academic system and the education of black residents, the forever disappearance of a wealthy black community and entrepreneurship, the harsh legal system, gentrification and an attempted eradication of the historic neighborhood, and how the area responds to current social and political issues such as Black Lives Matter and presidential elections.

“I think it’s important that people get the full picture of the damage that’s been done,” Luckerson told The Daily Beast.

Luckerson, who hails from Montgomery, Alabama, claims that while Tulsa shares a dark, racist history like his hometown, Tulsa’s brutal past has not been “dealt with” and that the wounds of the massacre’s descendants are still fresh because “they have to live with the trauma’ every day.”

“[Montgomery’s] The history has been analyzed so broadly that it feels a bit like American history,” Luckerson said. “The emotions are much rawer in Tulsa because of this lack of justice, lack of accountability and lack of recognition.”

Despite the lengthy process the case has taken, Solfanelli and Adams say it will still be a while before the Supreme Court decides whether or not to go to trial.

“It will probably take a minute before a decision is made,” Adams said. “But this is one of those moments: the survivors come to the state capital and kind of look at the [Oklahoma] Supreme Court in the eyes, the Supreme Court sees them. This is really the last stand. So if the Supreme Court rejects it [it], the matter is completely over. We cannot appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because they are state laws, not federal laws. So this is it.”

“Another element that is important and very interesting is the manner in which it is done [the] The Greenwood community is… just as committed,” Solfanelli said. “The entire local Greenwood community and descendants have been a part of this from the beginning and have continued to be, and are not going anywhere.”

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