Skip to contents

The Next Phase of the Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors’ Legal Battle

The dismissal of this case is just one more example of the country’s “legacy of racial harm,” they say.

Tulsa Race Massacre survivors Hughes Van Ellis Sr. (from left), Lessie Benningfield Randle, and Viola Fletcher wave to supporters from a horse-drawn carriage before a march in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May 2021. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

The three known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre refuse to stop fighting for restitution, even after a Tulsa County District Court judge tossed out their lawsuit seeking reparations.

“The dismissal of this case is just one more example of how America’s — and specifically Tulsa’s — legacy of racial harm, racial distress, is disproportionately and unjustly borne by Black communities,” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, Viola Fletcher, 109, and her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, 102, said in a statement this week.

Over the course of about one day in 1921, a white mob destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood district, which was revered as “Black Wall Street.” Approximately 300 people were killed, and thousands more lost their homes. After the killing, state and federal policymakers and others intentionally described the massacre as a “riot” in order to evade any obligation they had to help restore the area to its former prosperity, per a 2021 Brookings Institution report.

The impact of racial violence in Tulsa and other cities can still be felt today. Black Tulsa households, for instance, have just 6 cents in wealth for every dollar of wealth held by white Tulsa households, according to a 2021 Joint Economic Committee report. Across the U.S., acts of racial violence stunted Black families’ generational wealth.

“Judge [Caroline] Wall has strikingly backpedaled on her prior order permitting us, the three living survivors of the massacre, to proceed with our public nuisance litigation seeking justice for the continuing harm of the massacre,” the survivors said in the statement. “But we will not go quietly. We will continue to fight until our last breath. Like so many Black Americans, we carry the weight of intergenerational racial trauma day in and day out, a weight that we cannot relinquish or cavalierly dismiss.”

Damario Solomon-Simmons — an attorney for the survivors as well as the founder of the nonprofit Justice for Greenwood — echoed some of these sentiments during a press conference on Monday at the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church. The good news, he said, is that the judge’s dismissal doesn’t mean defeat. He and his legal team are going to appeal the case to a higher court. Further, they’re demanding that the federal government intervene and secure relief.

“President Joe Biden came here two years ago. He stood right across the street and acknowledged the worst race massacre in the history of this nation,” Solomon-Simmons said. “He acknowledged that, and said that there needs to be justice. So, we’re calling on him and the U.S. Department of Justice to come in and do a federal investigation of the massacre, pursuant to the Emmett Till Cold Case Act of 2007, reauthorized in 2016.”

To discuss the stakes of Randle, Fletcher, and Van Ellis’ case and the next phase of the survivors’ legal battle, Capital B spoke with Solomon-Simmons. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Capital B: An argument the city has made is that, though the massacre was horrific, the public nuisance has ended. What do you make of that sentiment, which, to me, ignores everything the survivors have said?

The continuing harm of the massacre is evident in a number of statistics, but I’ll start with the property issue, which was a big issue in our case. The Stradford Hotel was the largest and most prosperous Black-owned hotel in the nation, and one of Greenwood’s largest employers. It was burned to the ground — never rebuilt. To this day, that area is vacant property.

A.C. Jackson was the most prominent Black doctor in the nation, and had a medical office here in Greenwood. He was murdered. No one disputes that. He was a murder during the massacre. Hundreds of businesses and thousands of families lost everything, and were never able to rebuild. That alone shows that the continuing harm is there.

You also can look at how Black people and white people in Tulsa have different life expectancies, or at racial disparities in homeownership, or at the highways that were built in Greenwood to destroy whatever was left of the district and segregate Black and white communities. Those are all examples of ongoing harm.

And our argument was very clear. Just think about the BP oil spill. If the oil is spilling out but then you plug that hole, the oil is still polluting the water. It’s still making the surrounding area hazardous. The nuisance is still there.

Were you surprised by Judge Caroline Wall’s dismissal?

I was surprised because the law and the facts were on our side. We weren’t asking the judge to do us a favor. We were asking her to rule on the law. In 2022, she ruled that we can move forward, based on the law. And she went back on her ruling. That was very disappointing and very shocking from my standpoint as a lawyer who believes in the rule of law.

Unfortunately, as a Black person in the U.S. and as a son of Greenwood, I can’t say that I’m shocked. I’m disappointed. But how can I be shocked when this refusal to give justice has been going on in this city for 102 years? What this says to Black Americans everywhere — because everybody’s looking at this case — is that some people believe so strongly in white supremacy that they can agree that harm occurred and then say to our face: But we’re not going to do anything about it.

How do you and your team plan on moving the case forward?

A couple of ways. One, we’re definitely going to appeal this decision. We think that we’re right on the law. We think that the Oklahoma Supreme Court should look at this case and give us a ruling that gets us back into court.

But this isn’t over, and we have other avenues. We’re still pushing strongly for the federal government to step in. President Joe Biden came here to Greenwood in 2021. He stood here and recognized the massacre for what it was. He talked about how there needs to be justice. So, we’re going to continue calling on the federal government to do its part. We’ve been pushing for two years for the U.S. Department of Justice, and our dear sister [U.S. Assistant Attorney General] Kristen Clarke, to come in and investigate the massacre.

There’s never been a criminal investigation into the massacre, and the federal government has the ability to do that under the Emmett Till Cold Case Act of 2007, which was reauthorized in 2016. We’ve had a couple of meetings with the Department of Justice, and we say to them that Oklahoma and Tulsa won’t do the right thing without someone making them do it.

The federal government has a duty, while my clients are still alive, to come in and use its awesome powers to give this community some form of relief.

What do you want people to know about North Tulsa — “Black Tulsa” — today?

You can see so clearly, even just a few miles across the tracks or across the highway, a first-class, modern city, with all the amenities and money, and then you come to the Black side of town, and it’s destitute. It’s desolate. It’s neglected.

So, life for Black people in Tulsa is difficult. And this is a direct outgrowth of the massacre. After the massacre, white communities wanted to police Black people in order to prevent the rise of another [Greenwood]. We’re still dealing with the consequences of the massacre 102 years later. This is why the judge’s decision is so difficult to stomach. But while we’re hurting, our heads are unbowed — and we’re moving forward.

I want everyone who believes in truth and justice and reparations to support us, to stand with the survivors and show them that they have a whole nation of people fighting with them.