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Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors Can Advance Their Reparations Lawsuit, Judge Rules

Tulsa Commemorates 100th Anniversary Of Tulsa Race Massacre

TULSA, OKLAHOMA – JUNE 01: (L-R) Survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher, and Hughes Van Ellis sing together at the conclusion of a rally during commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 2021 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and their descendants can advance their reparations claims over one of the worst acts of anti-Black terrorism in U.S. history, an Oklahoma judge has ruled.

For 18 hours stretched over a course of two days, an armed mob of white vigilantes looted and set fire to a then-prosperous section of Oklahoma’s second largest city dubbed “Black Wall Street,” incinerating much of the Greenwood neighborhood, killing 300 people, and causing millions of dollars in damage. The Oklahoma Historical Society regards it as “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” one which received broader public consciousness last year amid its 100-year commemoration.

Attending that ceremony last summer with President Joe Biden were survivors who have been fighting for reparations in Tusla District Court, where a judge reportedly ruled on Monday that their case can proceed. Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall’s clerk told Law&Crime that a physical copy of the ruling has not yet been made available.

Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of 107-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle and other survivors, did not immediately respond to a press inquiry.

When first filed in September 2020, the lawsuit described century-old, state-sanctioned “domestic terrorism”:

A large, angry white mob, including some members of the Tulsa Police Department, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department, and the National Guard, as well as other City and County leaders and members of the Chamber of Commerce, overwhelmed the approximately 35-square-block community, killing hundreds of Black residents, injuring thousands more, burning down over one thousand homes and businesses, and stealing residents’ personal property. This brutal, inhumane attack…robbed thousands of African Americans of their right of self-determination on which they had built this self-sustaining community, and annoyed, injured and endangered the comfort, repose, health, and safety of the members of the Greenwood community, and rendered them insecure in their lives and the use of their real and personal property.

Other living survivors involved in the lawsuit include Viola Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, 101. The descendants are Laura Stradford, the great-granddaughter of J.B. Stradford; Elloise Cochrane-Price, the daughter of Clarence Rowland and cousin of Dick Rowland; Tedra Williams, the granddaughter of Wess Young; Don M. Adams, the nephew of Dr. A.C. Jackson; Don W. Adams, grandson of H.A. Guess; and Stephen Williams, the grandson of A.J. Smitherman.

The Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church and the Tulsa African Ancestral Society are also named as plaintiffs.

The lawsuit advances two claims of public nuisance and unjust enrichment. They seek a declaration that government policies created an “on-going” public nuisance and “public health emergency.” The lawsuit proposes that those damages be made whole through a victims compensation fund, property development, mental health and educational programs, a land trust, a scholarship program for descendants of survivors, and other reparations.

The representative for the city of Tulsa, the lead defendant, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

Colin Kalmbacher contributed to this report.

(Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."