Lawsuit seeks redress for 1921 massacre of Tulsa’s Black district

A 105-year-old survivor is the lead plaintiff seeking recompense for the ‘public nuisance’ the racist massacre created.

People walk past a Black Wall Street mural in the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Monday, June 15, 2020. Despite the Oklahoma heat, visitors of all races come to the site of the destroyed Black community [Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo]

A lawsuit filed in the US state of Oklahoma seeks justice for the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, among the largest racially motivated mass killings in US history. 

The suit, filed on behalf of descendants of the carnage and a survivor, 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, is seeking reparations for the destruction of the city’s previously thriving Black district, Greenwood, that was burned to the ground by an angry white mob.

The area was so financially successful it was known as “the Black Wall Street” in its day. It is estimated that up to 300 people were killed during the massacre

Tulsa lawyer Damario Solomon-Simmons, who filed the lawsuit along with other members of the Justice for Greenwood Advocates, a team of civil and human rights lawyers, told reporters at a news conference last week that no one “to this day, has been held accountable … someone said recently that the folks that committed the massacre almost got away with it. Well, they did get away with it. Until today.”

The massacre, which left hundreds of Black residents dead and thousands homeless, has received renewed attention in recent months. Part of this renewed interest came after a popular television programme, The Watchmen, used the events as major plot point.

Tulsa Race Massacre
A group of people looking at smoke in the distance coming from damaged properties following the Tulsa Race Massacre [Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images]

 Next year will mark the tragic event’s 100th anniversary.

President Donald Trump recently moved the date of his June rally in Tulsa to avoid coinciding with a Juneteenth celebration in the city’s Greenwood District, following criticism from Black leaders.

The lawsuit seeks repairs in and restoration of Tulsa’s predominantly Black north side and claims the event has a lasting impact on Black residents of the city to this day.

A Red Cross report six months after the incident stated “the consensus opinion” about the underlying causes of the rioting “places the blame upon ‘the lack of law enforcement'”.

“Thirty-five city blocks were looted systematically, then burned to a cinder,” the report stated, ” and the twelve thousand population thereof scattered like chaff before the wind.”

The lawsuit names seven defendants said to have contributed to the “public nuisance and unjustly enriched themselves at the expense of the Black citizens of Tulsa and the survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre”.

The complaint was filed under the state’s public nuisance law, which the state attorney general used last year to force opioid drug maker Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $465m in damages.

The plaintiffs want the defendants to “abate the public nuisance of racial disparities, economic inequalities, insecurity, and trauma their unlawful actions and omissions caused in 1921 and continue to cause 99 years after the massacre”.

Tulsa Race Massacre
The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, June 1921 [Bettmann Archive/Getty Images]

 The lawsuit does not specify a dollar amount sought by the plaintiffs but asks the court to declare that a public nuisance created by the defendants is capable of being abated “through the expenditure of money and labor”.

The suit also seeks a detailed accounting of the property and wealth lost or stolen in the massacre, the construction of a hospital in north Tulsa and the creation of a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund, among other things. It also seeks immunity from all city and county taxes and utility expenses for the next 99 years for descendants of those who were killed, injured or lost property in the massacre.

The Red Cross report said the property losses including household goods “will easily reach the four million [dollar] mark”.

Other defendants include the Tulsa Regional Chamber, Board of County Commissioners, Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, Tulsa County Sheriff and a branch of the Oklahoma Military Department, which is the agency that administers the state’s National Guard.

Tulsa graves
The graves of Reuben Everett, left, and Eddie Lockard, right, believed to be victims of the massacre, are seen at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa [Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo]

“There are widely varying accounts of the role played by the National Guard during the events of late May and early June 1921 in the Greenwood District. However, the historical record shows that a handful of Guardsmen protected the Tulsa armory and the weapons inside from more than 300 rioters,” The Oklahoma National Guard’s Office of Public Affairs said in a statement following the lawsuit. 

“The actions of these Guardsmen substantially reduced the number of deaths in the Greenwood District. In the days following the riots, Oklahoma Guardsmen restored order to the area and prevented further attacks by both black and white Tulsans. Due to pending litigation, the Oklahoma National Guard will offer no further comment on this subject.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies