In 1921, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of white folks traveled by train, car and foot to Greenwood, the thriving Black neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. For the next day-and-a-half, those white folks destroyed the most prosperous Black neighborhood in the United States. They murdered at least 300 Black people and tossed their bodies into the Arkansas River or dumped them in mass graves dug around the city. The Black survivors fled Tulsa, or were rounded up and held in internment camps around the town. And for 101 years, there have been no repercussions for this massacre.

It’s past time we as a nation face this history and provide long-overdue reparations to right this historical wrong.

It is important to underscore just how traumatic and life-altering this massacre was for survivors. Many of them went back to living and working among the white folks who had destroyed their homes, murdered their friends and family members, imprisoned them in camps, and transformed their lives. They spent years presenting one facade to the white community, and another to their friends and family.

Moreover, the massacre didn’t just destroy property and kill people. It permanently altered the fabric of the neighborhood. It messed up sanitation, zoned the Black neighborhoods to local environmental hazards next to residential homes, ran a freeway through the community, let racially biased policing flourish, destroyed the local hospital, and polluted Greenwood and North Tulsa, as documented in a 2020 report from Human Rights Watch.

Black Tulsans have a right to demand repair from the City of Tulsa for these deadly acts and deserve access to resources that have long been denied to them. This should be done through reparations. Reparations is how we attack the structure of anti-Black oppression in Tulsa and empower the community as a whole. It’s how we acknowledge this sordid history and begin rebuilding in earnest. It is the only way to truly recognize how anti-Black white supremacy was — and remains — a moral and legal abomination.

In 2002, I was part of a legendary legal team — which included Charles Ogletree, Johnnie Cochran and Adjoa Aiyetoro — that filed a reparations lawsuit on behalf of still-living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The survivors in our lawsuit included Hal Singer, the internationally renowned jazz musician; Olivia Hooker, a well-known psychologist and educator; Otis Clark, then our oldest plaintiff who was 101 when we met him; and John Melvin Alexander, who would give his name to the lawsuit, Alexander v. Oklahoma

This lawsuit would have provided direct money payments to the survivors and perhaps their descendants; simultaneously, it would have legitimized the reparations movement by showing that it was a legally practicable and morally defensible political claim. The various trial and appellate courts that heard our case thought that we would win on the merits — it was both a groundbreaking and an airtight case. However, the courts simply refused to suspend the illogical statute of limitations and maintained that we should have filed decades earlier. We couldn’t get past this legal loophole, and justice was denied.

In 2020, we filed a new lawsuit on behalf of three of the known living survivors of the massacre centered on a “public nuisance claim.” I found myself back in a Tulsa courtroom, with a new generation of legal leaders, led by innovative and inspiring civil rights attorney Damario Solomon Simmons. This time, we had the backing of Black activists and grassroots organizations across the country. This time, a judge ruled our lawsuit could proceed.

The evolution of our legal strategy was important. But even more significant was the change in public education around the massacre; two decades later, society finally knew about this horrific tragedy. We had the momentum and power of the broader Black Lives Matter movement. And now, reparations are finally within reach.

Right now, we have the chance to make a difference in the lives of those Black people who currently live in Greenwood and North Tulsa; these people are still deeply impacted by the legacy of the massacre and the subsequent acts of the City of Tulsa and its Chamber of Commerce. For years, this community has felt the sting of brutal policing, suffered the problems of faulty sanitation and lacked the educational opportunities they needed to thrive — all legacies of the massacre. While there are still a number of questions remaining regarding reparations — among them, how to include different generations with different injuries — it is clear that any form must go beyond direct money payments and focus on transformative power that reshapes relations between the oppressed and the oppressor. 

In Tulsa, thanks to the discussion facilitated by Justice for Greenwood, grassroots activists and massacre descendants, we are leading the way in creating alliances among diverse coalitions of Black people for social justice and getting the reparations that survivors deserve. This will serve as the catalyst for reparations movements around the country to take shape. If justice is possible for massacre survivors in Tulsa, then it is possible anywhere.


Eric Miller is a professor and Leo J. O’Brien Fellow, as well as Co-Director at the LMU Loyola Anti-Racism Center.


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