The century-long fight for justice continues in an Oklahoma courtroom for the last three knowns survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. An Oklahoma judge ruled Monday that a lawsuit seeking reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre can proceed.
Viola Fletcher, 107, Hughes Van Ellis, 101, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107, entered court for what could be a last effort to force the city of Tulsa to pay restitutions for a massacre of 300 of its Black residents in 1921.
All three survivors were small children who lived in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, which was known as Black Wall Street, a thriving Black community in the middle of the Jim Crow era. But when a young Black man was accused of assaulting a white teenage girl, a white mob—including members of the sheriff’s department—torched roughly 35 blocks of homes and businesses, including reports of bomb attacks dropped from airplanes.
Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons filed the lawsuit in 2020 under the state’s public nuisance law.
“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. I’ve seen so many survivors die in my 20-plus years working on this issue. I just don’t want to see the last three die without justice. That’s why the time is of the essence.”
Chamber of Commerce attorney John Tucker said the massacre was horrible, but the nuisance is not ongoing. He argues the city should not be forced to pay anything because today’s residents had nothing to do with what happened more than a century ago.
The lawsuit claims, the city of Tulsa insurance companies never compensated victims for their losses, and the massacre ultimately resulted in racial and economic disparities that exist today. 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.
According to CBS News, Fletcher thinks of the attack every day.
“It will be something I’ll never forget,” she said.
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 the creation of a hospital in north Tulsa, in addition to mental health and education programs and a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund.
Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall ruled partially in favor of the survivors, dismissing allowing a trial to take place. No trial date has been set.