Tulsa Race Massacre lawsuit can go forward, judge rules

Race in America

FILE – In this May 28, 2021 file photo, Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, from left, Hughes Van Ellis Sr., Lessie Benningfield Randle, and Viola Fletcher, wave and high-five supporters from a horse-drawn carriage before a march in Tulsa, Okla. An Oklahoma judge has dismissed eight plaintiffs and two entities from a lawsuit seeking reparations for survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The order, signed Tuesday by Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall, allows the three known massacre survivors, Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle, 106, Viola “Mother” Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, Sr., 101, to continue seeking reparations under the state nuisance laws. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki File)

(NewsNation) — A lawsuit seeking reparations for three survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre can proceed, but six descendants of the victims cannot sue, an Oklahoma judge ruled Tuesday.

Under the order, signed by Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall, Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle, 106, Viola “Mother” Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, Sr., 101, will be allowed to continue seeking reparations under state nuisance laws.

“This is a historic win for our community. It’s a historic win for our survivors, and it’s a historic win for racial justice advocates throughout this country,” Damario Solomon-Simmons, the survivors’ attorney, said at a news conference Thursday, according to local news channel News on 6 (KOTV).

The massacre happened when a white mob descended on Tulsa’s Greenwood District in the early morning hours of June 1, 1921. Greenwood was looted and burned by the white rioters, who killed an estimated 300 people, mostly Black. Thousands more were left homeless and living in a hastily constructed internment camp.

After the violence, 35 city blocks were in charred ruins and more than 800 people were treated for injuries, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

Tulsa and insurance companies didn’t compensate victims for their losses in the massacre, which ultimately resulted in racial and economic disparities that still exist today, the lawsuit claims. It goes on to say that city and county officials actively thwarted the community’s effort to rebuild, and also neglected predominantly Black areas of Tulsa in favor of overwhelmingly white ones.

In addition to the six descendants, Wall dismissed the Historic Vernon AME Church Inc. and The Tulsa African Ancestral Society as plaintiffs. The Tulsa Development Authority and the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission were dismissed as defendants.

The city of Tulsa, Tulsa Regional Chamber, Tulsa County commissioners, the Tulsa County sheriff and the Oklahoma Military Department are all still defendants.

Court documents, according to KOTV, show the entity owning the property of the Vernon AME Church at the time of the Massacre in 1921 was an “unincorporated association,” so it can’t claim injuries from unknown members.

Solomon-Simmons said during a news conference that he has spoken with those who were dismissed from the lawsuit.

“They were saddened they were dismissed out, but they are still very excited, heartened by the fact that we are moving forward and that these survivors can represent the entire community of Greenwood,” Solomon-Simmons said.

The Rev. Keith Mayes, the pastor at Vernon AME, told KOTV the dismissal is a “travesty,” and a “slap in the face.” Attorneys on both sides were called to amend the claim for reparations in Wall’s order. The claim sought unspecified punitive damages and called for the creation of a hospital in north Tulsa, in addition to mental health and education programs and a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund.

“Bottom line is that survivors are in, we have the opportunity to prove the massacre itself … constitutes a nuisance,” said Solomon-Simmons, adding that the massacre deprived Black people in Tulsa of security, economic power and a vibrant community.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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