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Judge Lets Tulsa Race Massacre Reparations Lawsuit Proceed

The suit seeks punitive damages, calls for a hospital, mental health and education programs, as well as a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund.
A woman walks by a mural depicting the Tulsa Race Massacre
Posted at 8:04 PM, May 02, 2022

An Oklahoma judge ruled Monday that a lawsuit can proceed that seeks reparations for survivors and descendants of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall's ruling brought new hope for some measure of justice over the racist rampage in which an angry white mob killed hundreds of Black residents and destroyed what had been the nation's most prosperous Black business district.

Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons filed the lawsuit in 2020 under the state's public nuisance law.

Solomon-Simmons said a quick decision is critical for living survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107, Viola Fletcher, 107, and Hugh Van Ellis, 101.

"We believe this is the last opportunity for these survivors to have their day in court," Solomon-Simmons said, citing their ages. "We want to ask (the judge) to move forward and move forward as soon as possible."

Oklahoma sued consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson using the state public nuisance law for its roll in the deadly opioid crisis. Initially a judge ordered the drugmaker to pay the state $465 million in damages. But the Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the Johnson & Johnson verdict, ruling that the public nuisance law did not apply because the company had no control of the drug after it was sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and physicians' offices and then prescribed by doctors to patients.

Eric Miller, a Loyola Marymount University law professor working with the plaintiffs, said the state court's ruling in the Johnson & Johnson has no effect on the lawsuit.

"In public nuisance cases it is clear either criminal acts or destruction of personal property" constitute a nuisance, Miller said, and that racial and economic disparities resulting from the massacre continue to this day.

Chamber of Commerce attorney John Tucker said the race massacre was horrible, but that the nuisance is not ongoing.

"What happened in 1921 was a really bad deal and those people did not get a fair shake ... but that was 100 years ago," Tucker said.

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre began when an angry white mob descended on a 35-block area, killing people, looting and burning business and homes. Hundreds of Black residents in Tulsa's Greenwood District died. Thousands more were left homeless and living in a hastily constructed internment camp.

The city and insurance companies never compensated victims for their losses, and the massacre ultimately resulted in racial and economic disparities that still exist today, the lawsuit claims. In the years following the massacre, according to the lawsuit, city and county officials actively thwarted the community's effort to rebuild and neglected the Greenwood and predominantly Black north Tulsa community in favor of overwhelmingly white parts of Tulsa.

Other defendants include the Tulsa County Board of County Commissioners, Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, Tulsa County Sheriff and the Oklahoma Military Department.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive damages and calls for creation of a hospital in north Tulsa, in addition to mental health and education programs and a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund.

The massacre received renewed attention in recent years, after then-President Donald Trump selected Tulsa as the location for a 2020 campaign rally amid the ongoing racial reckoning over police brutality and racial violence. Trump moved the date of his June rally to avoid coinciding with a Juneteenth celebration in the city's Greenwood District commemorating the end of slavery.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.