A woman who lived through the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and descendants of other victims have filed a lawsuit demanding reparations for the destruction of the city’s once prosperous Black district ― a spasm of murderous racial violence that ranks among the worst in U.S. history.
The group of Oklahomans, led by 105-year-old survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle, alleged in the lawsuit that Tulsa’s current racial and economic disparities can be traced back to the nearly century-old incident, and that the city is unjustly enriching itself by trying to profit off the massacre in what was known as the Greenwood District.
Other plaintiffs in the suit filed Tuesday in Tulsa County District Court are the Vernon AME Church and the Tulsa African Ancestral Society.
“We are so excited to finally get justice for Greenwood after 99 years,” attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, who filed the lawsuit, said at a news conference. “No one to this day has been held accountable. They got away with it ― until today.”
In addition to the city of Tulsa, the suit’s defendants include Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado, the Tulsa County Commission, the Tulsa Regional Chamber and the Oklahoma Military Department.
A white mob rampaged through the Greenwood District, the area of Black-owned businesses known as Black Wall Street for two days in 1921, May 31 and June 1. The mob looted, burned and destroyed most of the district ― including homes, churches, schools and a hospital, according to a 2001 Oklahoma commission report prepared for the state Legislature.
The attack began after a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman on May 30. The report found that Rowland likely tripped and stepped on the woman’s foot, and charges against him were dismissed.
But the next day the white mobs gathered at the Tulsa County Courthouse where Rowland was being held. Groups of armed Black men arrived to help protect Rowland, who the report said faced the threat of being lynched. Violence ensued after a shot rang out at the courthouse, where the report said Black residents were outnumbered more than 20 to 1.
Armed white people ― backed by local authorities and police ― arrived in Black neighborhoods and proceeded to shoot, torture and kill their residents in the gruesome massacre that continued into the next day. The destruction of 35 city blocks displaced thousands of Black residents, and some investigators estimate that as many as 300 people died in the massacre (a precise death count cannot be determined(. Researchers recently found mass graves in the area that point to more deaths.
After the massacre, city officials and institutions “actively and unlawfully thwarted the community’s efforts to rebuild, neglecting the Greenwood and predominantly Black, North Tulsa communities,” according to the lawsuit.
The state commission’s 19-year-old report found that the city of Tulsa conspired with white residents in the incident, and recommended direct payments to survivors and descendants. None have been made.
Previous massacre-related lawsuits were unsuccessful, most prominently a 2003 federal suit that was dismissed after the judges decided the victims waited too long to file it.
“We’re not just talking about what happened in 1921. We’re talking about what’s still happening,” Solomon-Simons said. “We believe this lawsuit will be successful because there is no question there is a nuisance created by the defendants.”
Oklahoma law defines nuisance in this context as the performance of an unlawful act, or the failure to perform a duty, that renders a person insecure in their life or ability to use property or endangers the individual’s comfort or safety. The state relied on this law most notably in its successful state lawsuits against opioid companies like Johnson & Johnson.
The new suit stems from the public nuisance law; it argues that the massacre created and perpetuated vast inequalities for Tulsa’s Black residents that persist to this day.
“The city of Tulsa destroyed an entire community and displaced its citizens,” said attorney Spencer Bryan, who’s part of the suit’s legal team. “The question is: Does the massacre and its effects continue today? The answer is an unequivocal yes.”
Unemployment among Black people in Tulsa is more than double that of white Tulsans; median household income for Black residents is half of that of white residents; Black students are nine times more likely to be suspended from school; and life expectancy for North Tulsa residents is 11 years below that in the rest of the city, according to Tulsa attorney Steven Terrill.
The suit accused current Tulsa officials of appropriating the massacre by decrying its horrors while trying to turn the district’s remains into a tourist site. According to the suit, the city in 2016 began promoting the massacre site “as a tourist attraction, obtaining funds to do so, as well as aiding in obtaining funds to create a history center of which” the city will have a central role ― all while the residents of Greenwood reap no benefits.
“It’s so much more than a tourist site ― it’s a crime scene. Until Tulsa does right by Greenwood, this district will forever be a crime scene,” the Rev. Robert Turner of Tulsa’s Vernon AME Church said at Tuesday’s news conference.
The church is the only structure in Greenwood not destroyed by the white rioters.
The suit seeks multiple forms of reparations, including unspecified punitive damages from the massacre, top priority for Black residents in the awarding of city contracts, and tax relief and scholarships for descendants of victims. The lawsuit also seeks to have a victim’s compensation fund that would ideally be created by using the profits the city would receive from the Greenwood tourist site.