Oklahoma court rejects reparations for survivors of 1921 Tulsa massacre

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed the lawsuit filed by the last known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, rejecting requests for reparations in response to one of the worst incidents of racist violence against black people in history the United States.

The court’s decision comes four years after three survivors of the massacre – Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis – filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and several local and state agencies and officials. Van Ellis died last year.

The lawsuit claimed the city, county, Oklahoma National Guard and other officials caused a “public nuisance” in 1921, when they failed to defend the black community against a white mob that was falling on the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, known as Black Wall Street. .

Tulsa officials argued the plaintiffs were seeking damages for injuries committed outside the two-year statute of limitations.

The Tulsa District Court, where the suit was first filed, ruled against the massacre survivors, who appealed. In its ruling Wednesday upholding that decision, the state Supreme Court wrote that survivors’ claims for compensation “for harm resulting from the massacre” did not fall within the scope of the state law on “public nuisances”.

“The alleged continuing blight within the Greenwood community, born from the massacre, involves generational and societal inequalities that can only be resolved by policymakers, not the courts,” the court wrote.

Attorneys for Fletcher and Randle said they plan to file a motion asking the court to reconsider its decision. “The destruction of forty blocks of property on the night of May 31, 1921, by murder and arson clearly meets the definition of a public nuisance under Oklahoma law,” the legal team said in a statement .

Massacre survivors Randle and Fletcher are entitled to a trial, lawyers said, adding that they will ask the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the massacre under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act. Act.

“This is not a political issue simply because the suit seeks to redress unlawful acts perpetrated by a white mob against black people,” the statement said, adding that “the justice system is the very place where such harms are supposed to be repaired.

The massacre began on the evening of May 31, 1921, when a white mob descended on Greenwood, shooting black people indiscriminately and burning more than 1,200 homes, a black-owned hospital and hundreds of businesses, d black-owned churches and schools. Some survivors reported seeing planes dropping turpentine bombs on homes.

The survivors’ lawsuit claimed that the city police department and county sheriff’s office commissioned and armed white Tulsans “to murder, loot and burn nearly 40 blocks of the Greenwood District.”

The state National Guard participated “alongside this angry white mob to kill, loot and destroy the property of Greenwood’s black residents,” the lawsuit claims. “The city, sheriff, chamber and county targeted black community leaders and victims of the massacre for prosecution as instigators of the massacre – even though they knew who was really responsible.

On June 1, 1921, martial law was declared. Troops rounded up black survivors at gunpoint and took them to “internment camps” throughout the city. Survivors also described seeing black bodies thrown into the Arkansas River and mass graves. No white person was ever arrested or charged for the massacre.

In 2018, Tulsa reopened an investigation to determine whether there were mass graves from the massacre. In 2020, scientists discovered a mass grave in the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery. Scientists continue to examine the exhumed remains, according to city officials, and look for DNA matches to possible descendants.

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