105-Year-Old Woman Among Several Black Oklahomans Suing Tulsa For 1921 Race Massacre
The massacre is believed to have left approximately 300 Black people dead.
September 04, 2020 at 1:42 pm
A group of civil rights activists and survivors have filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and the local officials for their role in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Led by a group called Justice for Greenwood Advocates and Lessie Benningfield Randle, a 105-year-old survivor of the massacre, the lawsuit demands compensation for the lives and businesses lost due to the riot, KJRH reports.
No one has ever been held accountable for the estimated 300 Black people that were killed and the millions of dollars worth of businesses burned to the ground, but in recent years local politicians have been making money from tourism by marketing the Greenwood area as the site of the massacre, according to lawyer Damario Solomon-Simmons.
Solomon-Simmons wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in June about potential reparations for the massacre and officially filed the lawsuit on Tuesday before holding a press conference explaining how the massacre was still affecting Black Oklahomans today.
“The Greenwood massacre deprived Black Tulsans of their sense of security, hard-won economic power and vibrant community. [It] created a nuisance that continues to this day. The nuisance has led to the devaluation of property in Greenwood and has resulted in significant racial disparities in every quality of life metric – life expectancy, health, unemployment, education level, and financial security," Solomon-Simmons said.
“The defendants in this case have continued the massacre in slow motion for nearly a century,” he added.
In the lawsuit, Solomon-Simmons writes that Randle, who is one of only two known living survivors of the riot, still has flashbacks of the dead Black bodies she saw piled high in the middle of the street. She still remembers the neighborhood burning.
“It’s about respect, restoration and repair of those who suffered,” Solomon-Simmons said.
In addition to Randle, the grandchildren of massacre survivors also contributed to the lawsuit, saying the businesses that were looted and burned would be worth millions today.
Government officials in Tulsa have refused to pay reparations to survivors but are now promoting Greenwood and its tragic history to support local tourist businesses since the neighborhood was featured heavily in the HBO show Watchmen, according to NBC News.
The Guardian noted that a 2001 commission officially ruled that city officials worked with white mobs and said the city should pay survivors as well as descendants. Despite the recommendation, the city has refused, calling the desire for reparations "divisive."
Instead of paying survivors, the city gave them all medals.
The city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the then-serving Sheriff of Tulsa County, the State National Guard, a branch of the Oklahoma Military Department and the Tulsa Regional Chamber are all named in the lawsuit as defendants.
According to the lawyers behind the case, local officials have “unjustly enriched themselves at the expense of the black citizens of Tulsa and the survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.”
The lawsuit did not list a monetary amount but said hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property was lost.
“Beginning on May 31, 1921, and lasting through June 1, 1921, one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in United States history since slavery completely decimated Tulsa’s thriving, all-Black community of Greenwood,” the lawsuit stated.
“This brutal, inhumane attack robbed thousands of African Americans of their right of self-determination on which they had built this self-sustaining community…Defendants looted and destroyed Mother Randle’s grandmother’s home, rendered her insecure in her health and sense of safety in the immediate aftermath of the massacre and caused her to have emotional and physical distress to this day,” the lawsuit added.
As Blavity previously reported, in June the city restarted efforts to excavate areas of the city that may be the site of mass graves.
In response to the lawsuit, the Oklahoma National Guard released a statement saying that despite historical evidence showing their officers were involved in the massacre, they were actually integral in ending the massacre.
"There are widely varying accounts of the role played by the National Guard during the events of late May and early June 1921 in the Greenwood District. However, the historical record shows that a handful of Guardsmen protected the Tulsa armory and the weapons inside from more than 300 rioters. The actions of these Guardsmen substantially reduced the number of deaths in the Greenwood District," the Oklahoma National Guard statement read.
The 2001 commission found that the entire impetus for the 1921 massacre was based on a minor accident, according to NPR. Dick Rowland may have accidentally stepped on a white woman's foot in an elevator but the woman screamed, and white men in the area said Rowland had sexually assaulted her.
A white crowd formed around the courthouse with "lynch talk in the streets of Tulsa" circulating. When Black court officials refused, the white mob burned the area down, the commission found.
The effects of the massacre have lingered on the Black community in Tulsa for 100 years. Human Rights Watch released a recent report showing the Black poverty rate in the city is 34% while the white poverty rate is 13%.