Tulsa Race Massacre

‘We will not go quietly’: Tulsa race massacre survivors vow appeal after years-in-the-making lawsuit dismissed

Survivors of a cataclysmic white supremacist attack are not giving up a fight for justice after a devastating court decision, attorneys tell Alex Wododward

Tuesday 11 July 2023 00:00 BST
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Tulsa race massacre survivors Viola Fletcher, left, and her younger brother Hughes Van Ellis, speak at an event on 16 June.
Tulsa race massacre survivors Viola Fletcher, left, and her younger brother Hughes Van Ellis, speak at an event on 16 June. (AP)

More than 100 years after a white mob destroyed a Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing as many as 300 people and leaving hundreds of others homeless, a judge has dismissed the decades-in-the-making lawsuit demanding justice in its ongoing aftermath.

A judge’s two-sentence dismissal closes a years-long chapter in a case, which traces the decades of neglect and festering racial disparities in Oklahoma in the long shadow of the racist massacre.

But the plaintiffs – including the three last-known living survivors of the 1921 attack and their descendants – have vowed to appeal. Civil rights attorneys are urging federal authorities to investigate the attack and uphold President Joe Biden’s promise to reckon with the “deep roots of racial terror”.

“This is not over,” civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons told The Independent. “We’re certainly going to appeal this case, what we consider to be an unfounded, ridiculous, wrong decision.”

On 10 July, in remarks from inside the 120-year-old Vernon AME Church, the only-surviving structure from the massacre, Mr Solomon-Simmons read a statement from the survivors – Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, who at 109 years old is the oldest living survivor among them.

“We will not go quietly,” he said, reading from their statement. “We will continue to fight until our last breath. Like so many Black Americans, we carry the weight of intergenerational racial trauma, day in and day out.”

Black Americans did not provoke racial injustice but “bear the burden of righting the wrongs of it,” he said. “We, as survivors, and all of those that believe in racial justice, we will not sit quietly or passively to allow mistruths and injustice to persist. … We will not rest until there is justice for Greenwood.”’

‘They murdered people’

In the late hours of 31 May, 1921 in Tulsa’s thriving “Black Wall Street” of Greenwood, an armed white mob deputized by law enforcement fired indiscriminately on Black Americans in the street. Planes dropped flaming turpentine-soaked rags and dynamite. Witness accounts reported the bodies of Black victims thrown into the Arkansas River or into mass graves. Survivors were rounded up at gunpoint and detained in internment camps.

The mob torched and looted homes and businesses, including restaurants, hotels, theatres, and a newspaper. A truck mounted with a machine gun fired on Mount Zion Baptist Church before it was burned to the ground.

No one was ever charged with a crime.

Three survivors of Tulsa Massacre give statement read by lawyer at press conference

In their testimony to Congress in 2021, survivors recounted the horrors they witnessed as young children.

“They murdered people,” Ms Randle said in her testimony. “I still see it today in my mind … I have survived 100 years of painful memories and losses. By the grace of God, I am still here. I have survived. I have survived to tell this story. I believe I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully, now you all will listen to us while we are still here.”

Greenwood’s long road to recovery would suffer the same systemic impacts of racial violence that reverberated across the US throughout the 20th century, from redlining and the construction of highways through Black neighborhoods to “urban renewal” initiatives and the use of eminent domain to seize Black-owned property.

A lawsuit and the Justice for Greenwood campaign supporting it have sought to correct the record about the massacre with a detailed account of the violence and to establish a fund for survivors and their descendants.

The challenge invoked a public nuisance statute, circumventing the statute of limitations for civil suits that prevented previous attempts to recover damages while threading the history of systemic harm in the years that followed the attack.

A ‘highly, highly unusual’ motion to dismiss

The city, state and other defendants, including the Chamber of Commerce and county sheriff’s office, filed several motions to dismiss the case in Tulsa County District Court. Defendants repeatedly argued a request to compensate residents for Greenwood’s destruction would impose a significant burden on the government’s financial stability.

Last year, Judge Caroline Wall allowed the case to proceed, a victory for the plaintiffs who now see the judge’s abrupt dismissal as “backpedaling” on her order.

On 7 July, Judge Wall dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning that the plaintiffs cannot refile.

“It is such a low bar in Oklahoma to get past that pleading stage, and we cleared it well and beyond, and that’s why we feel really confident that we are right on the law that we’ll be successful on appealing this, because we haven’t even gotten to any of that,” attorney Sara Solfanelli with Schulte Roth & Zabel told The Independent.

“They’re not even letting us get into court to get started,” she said. “This isn’t that they said ‘no reward, no abatement’ – they just said, ‘you don’t even get to ask for it.’ And that’s why it’s so devastating and wrong.”

The plaintiffs also are awaiting a written explanation for the judge’s decision, Mr Solomon-Simmons said.

“The decision, regardless of what she says, will not make sense to us,” he told The Independent. “But not to have a reasoning behind it is completely just absurd. And it’s a disrespect to this issue, it’s a disrespect to our clients who are over 100 years old and who came to every court hearing, it’s a disrespect to the hundreds of people from the community that came to every court hearing. And it’s just a disrespect to the rule of law.”

Schulte Roth & Zabel’s Michael Swartz told The Independent that it is “highly, highly unusual to dismiss the case, certainly one of this magnitude. with no explanation.”

“It’s particularly perplexing here because the court said we can go forward, and then she reverses course on a Friday night without explanation,” he said. “It is so demoralizing, so inappropriate not to have an explanation.”

The plaintiffs “feel incredibly disrespected and really just disappointed that the judge would not have more humanity towards them to at least give them reasoning and some notice that this was going to happen,” Mr Solomon-Simmons said.

“So with that great disappointment, they still very much want to move forward, see this appeal,” he added. “For the last four years, every day we’ve been talking about ‘time is of the essence’ because these people are so old. They’re still here, and they’re still participating, and so we’re ready to fight.”

Smoke billows above Tulsa during a racist massacre in 1921
Smoke billows above Tulsa during a racist massacre in 1921 (AP)

A statement from the office of Tulsa Mayor GT Bynam said the city remains “committed to finding the graves of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims, fostering economic investment in the Greenwood District, educating future generations about the worst event in our community’s history, and building a city where every person has an equal opportunity for a great life.”

In 2021, recognizing the 100th anniversary of the attack, the mayor issued an apology on behalf of the city, while millions of dollars were raised to commemorate the massacre and open a centrepiece community centre.

Advocates for the survivors have accused city officials of misappropriating survivors’ images to promote the massacre’s centennial.

A commission appointed by the Oklahoma state legislature in 1997 spent nearly four years investigating the massacre before issuing several recommendations to state and local governments, including guidance to make direct payments to survivors and their families.

Most of the recommendations never fully materialised, or have fallen short of community demands and expectations.

The mayor supports efforts toward reparations for survivors but has rejected using taxpayer-supported municipal funds to do so.

Crews working to excavate potential remains from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre are pictured 100 years later in 2021
Crews working to excavate potential remains from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre are pictured 100 years later in 2021 (REUTERS)

“They haven’t honored anything. They commercially capitalized off the massacre to create a tourism district, raised 30 plus million dollars that benefits the white power elite here in Tulsa. That’s what what this has been all about,” Mr Solomon-Simmons told The Independent.

“It’s never been about justice, never been about compensation, never been about rebuilding Greenwood,” he added.

A ‘blueprint’ for racial justice

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have argued that the case could serve as a “blueprint” for other communities victimized by systemic injustice and racial violence relying on similar public nuisance statutes that can outline decades of harm.

In a broader sense, it also models a “creative” way to ask “how can you think about righting wrongs in the past that people haven’t tried before, within our system,” Ms Solfanelli told The Independent.

“We do think that this is an inspiration, certainly, with a blueprint of some of the same arguments and using some of the same tools, but [thinking] about going outside the toolbox and bringing something new that’s never been done before. And I think we’re all committed to continuing doing that,” she said.

In a proclamation recognizing the 100th anniversary of the attack in 2021, President Biden called on Americans to reflect “on the deep roots of racial terror in our nation and recommit to the work of rooting out systemic racism across our country,” a statement that echoed a renewed focus among the nation’s institutions during racial justice uprisings but diminished in their wake.

Attorneys and advocates have fought to keep the public’s attention on Tulsa, stressing that their case remains viable and that the survivors are committed to keeping their case alive.

“This work is very costly, both emotionally, physically, spiritually, but also financially,” Mr Solomon-Simmons told The Independent. “We want our survivors to know that despite what the city is doing, in spite of what the mayor is saying, in spite of what Judge Wall has done, they have a community, a nationwide community of folks that are not just praying and supporting them, but actively in the fight with you.’

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