May 31 marks the 101st anniversary of the beginning of the Tulsa Race Massacre that destroyed the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, a community of Black wealth and achievement that had been nicknamed Black Wall Street. The horrific attack killed hundreds of people, destroyed thousands of homes and establishments and obliterated a 35-block neighborhood that had been thriving within the city of Tulsa. As knowledge of the massacre finally spread after decades of whitewashing, the few living survivors and the descendants of those who lived through the violence are finally moving a few steps closer to being compensated for the attack and its lingering impact on them and their community.

Seeking reparations for the Greenwood survivors

In 2020, lawyers filed a lawsuit against various Tulsa and Oklahoma public entities over the massacre, claiming that there had never been compensation for the attack and that its effects linger for survivors and their descendants. They cited higher unemployment rates, lower life expectancies and less access to education as among the continued impacts of the massacre within Tulsa. The suit was filed on behalf of the last three known survivors of the massacre, Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher, and Hughes Van Ellis.

These three survivors, each over 100 years old today, were small children during the time of the attack and managed to be evacuated from the massacre, which killed hundreds of their relatives and neighbors in Greenwood. The suit also represents descendants of other survivors who have since died.

The Tulsa Race Massacre lawsuit moves forward

The lawsuit seeks compensation for the survivors and for descendants of victims, which is to take several forms. It calls for a thorough determination of the wealth and property lost or destroyed due to the 1921 attack. The suit also includes a demand for increased community resources in the city, such as the creation of a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund and the construction of a hospital in North Tulsa, where many of the descendants currently reside.

The suit also calls for surviving victims and victim descendants to be exempted from city and county taxes. The defendants attempted to argue that Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, under which the lawsuit was filed, did not apply to the massacre. But earlier this month, Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall rejected this argument, thus allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

Greenwood survivors keep up the fight to be acknowledged

Fletcher, Randle and Van Ellis have been active in bringing attention to the Tulsa Race Massacre and advocating for compensation for Tulsa and the long history of racial oppression and violence in this country. They have worked with reparations advocates including Human Rights Watch researcher Dreisen Heath and Tulsa-born activist Tiffany Crutcher. Last May, the three survivors testified before Congress about the massacre. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street,” Fletcher told a House Judiciary subcommittee of the night that she and Van Ellis, her younger brother, had to flee Tulsa.

“I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams,” she told members of Congress. “White men with guns came and destroyed my community,” Randle, the third living survivor, added. “We couldn’t understand why. What did we do to them?” Their testimonies have been added to the case for reparations for Tulsa and the long history of racial violence and discrimination in the U.S.

A surprise donation and a pledge to continue the fight

Earlier this month, Fletcher, Randle and Van Ellis were surprised when a nonprofit organization, Business for Good, announced that it was donating $1 million to the three survivors. The nonprofit was founded by Ed and Lisa Mitzen, a white New York couple worth $500 million based on several health care businesses they own. The Mitzens said they were inspired to donate the money after learning about the massacre in recent years and reading about the three survivors.

The couple specified that they were not intending to be “white saviors” or that their donation should be considered reparations. Likewise, relatives of the survivors and local politicians expressed gratitude for the donation while vowing to continue the fight for formal reparations for the massacre.

“We are very clear that there’s a difference between generosity and justice,” said Oklahoma State Rep. Regina Goodwin, who attended the ceremony surrounding the $1 million donation. “What you see here today is a man and a group of folks who care enough to give up their means, so we don’t confuse the two issues. The 101-year fight is ongoing.”