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Judge Rules Lawsuit Seeking Reparations For Tulsa Massacre Survivors Can Proceed

Three victims, all more than 100 years old, demand justice for the 1921 racist attack.

A lawsuit that seeks reparations for elderly survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is moving forward after a judge on May 2 rejected a motion to dismiss the case.

The three living survivors of the racist rampage, all over 100 years old, were in the courtroom where their supporters cheered when Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall announced her ruling, the Associated Press reports.

“We want them to see justice in their lifetime. 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,” said their attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons who filed the suit in 2020.

A white mob went on a rampage  on May 31, 1921 in the all-Black Greenwood District, home of what was dubbed Black Wall Street for its thriving business community. They burned down homes and businesses, slaughtered an estimated 300 Black residents, injured some 800 and left more than 10,000 of them homeless.

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: Images of A Community In Terror

Photos provided by the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.

Street Scene
Under Siege
A Dream Destroyed
Detention - The Tulsa Race Massacre focused the racist anger of whites who lived in the area around Tulsa, Okla., on the prosperous Greenwood District and a mob treated the community like criminals. In this image a group of African American men being marched down a street toward a detention center. 
Street Scene - A white man looks around an intersection during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Blacks were targeted during the violence, forcing many to flee their communities and hide from their assailants.  
Under Siege - A postcard shows Black Tulsans being marched to the city's convention Hall during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.  
A Dream Destroyed - One of the most popular prominent Black-owned businesses was the Williams Dreamland Theatre in the Greenwood District. It was opened in 1914 by John Wesley Williams and his wife Loula Thomas Cotten Williams. The upper story of the building contained the Alexander Hotel operated by Alexander Carr. But it was destroyed along with many blocks of other residences and businesses in the massacre.  

The living survivors are Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107, Viola Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, 101.

RELATED: Rediscovering Black Wall Street: New Film Reaches Back Into Tulsa’s Once Thriving Business District

RELATED: The Tulsa Race Massacre 100 Years Later: Why Descendants Are Demanding Reparations For The Racial Terrorism Their Ancestors Faced

The lawsuit seeks reparations for descendants of victims under the state’s public nuisance law. According to ABC News, the law allows people to sue authorities for their role in endanging Greenwood’s residents and their property.

Attorneys for the victims allege in the lawsuit that racial and economic disparities from the destruction of businesses and property continue a century later. It accuses city and county officials of blocking Greenwood’s efforts to rebuild after the massacre while supporting development of Tulsa’s white communities.

Beyond compensation for punitive damages, the lawsuit seeks the creation of a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund, along with mental health and education programs.

The Mayor's office declined ABC’s request for comments on the judge's ruling.

Defendants, which include the Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners and Tulsa County Sheriff, argue that too much time has passed and there’s no long-term impact from the massacre.

“What happened in 1921 was a really bad deal, and those people did not get a fair shake ... but that was 100 years ago,” the AP quoted Chamber of Commerce attorney John Tucker.

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