The courtroom burst into cheers and applause when an Oklahoma judge ruled on May 2 that a lawsuit seeking reparations for survivors and descendants of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre can proceed.
Three survivors of the deadly racist rampage, who are now more than 100 years old, were in the courtroom for the decision — Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107, Viola Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, 101.
Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall ruled against a motion to dismiss the suit.
Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons filed the lawsuit in 2020 seeking unspecified punitive damages and calling for the creation of a hospital in north Tulsa, mental health and education programs and a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund, ABC News reported.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys asked the judge to allow the case to move forward so the survivors and descendants of victims from the massacre could have their day in court, CNN reported. Judge Wall said the motion to dismiss was “granted in part” and “denied in part.” This ruling will allow the case to proceed but it is unclear what will happen next, according to Michael Swartz, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.
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“We want them to see justice in their lifetime,” Swartz said, near tears. “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.”
Up to 300 people died and more than 8,000 were left homeless in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, when an angry white mob descended on a 35-block area in Tulsa’s Greenwood District known as Black Wall Street. They killed people and looted and burned businesses and homes in what had been a thriving Black community. The displaced were forced to live in hastily constructed internment camps.
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The city and insurance companies never compensated victims, and the legacy of the massacre resulted in racial and economic disparities that persist to this day, the lawsuit claims.
Solomon-Simmons sued the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce and other government institutions under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, saying the actions of the white mob in 1921 continue to affect the city today. The lawsuit seeks reparations for descendants of victims of the massacre.
Chamber of Commerce attorney John Tucker pushed back, saying the massacre was horrible but the nuisance is not ongoing.
“What happened in 1921 was a really bad deal, and those people did not get a fair shake … but that was 100 years ago,” Tucker said.
Other defendants include the Tulsa Board of County Commissioners, Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, Tulsa County Sheriff, and the Oklahoma Military Department.
Photo: Freeman Culver stands in front of a mural listing the names of businesses destroyed during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla.,June 15, 202t. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki File)