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Ruling raises another hurdle for Tulsa Race Massacre victims seeking reparations

(L-R) Survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher, and Hughes Van Ellis sing together at the conclusion of a rally during commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 2021.
Brandon Bell
Getty Images
(L-R) Survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher, and Hughes Van Ellis sing together at the conclusion of a rally during commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 2021.

Over 100 years ago, one of the deadliest race riots in American history destroyed the prosperous neighborhood of Greenwood, in Tulsa, Okla. With the most recent lawsuit seeking reparations for victims now dismissed, will those victims ever obtain the justice they seek?

Who are they? The Tulsa race massacre killed as many as 300 Black people in the once prosperous Black community of Greenwood, Okla., and left more than 10,000 homeless.

  • Once known as "Black Wall Street," Greenwood was a prominent Black business district that was destroyed in the two-day terrorist attack in 1921.
  • The living victims who are seeking reparations for the massacre include Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher, and Hughes Van Ellis, all over 100 years old. Fletcher, the oldest of the group, is 109 years old.
  • The lawsuit was first brought to the city of Tulsa in 2020, in pursuit of what the lead attorney called  "justice in their lifetime." 
  • What's the big deal? Just this past week, Oklahoma judge Caroline Wall dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice. This decision comes over one year after she had allowed the case to proceed and ruled against the defendants' motions to dismiss.

  • According to reporting from the Associated Press, the lawsuit was brought under Oklahoma's public nuisance law, claiming that the lives lost and the damages suffered from the white supremacist attack continued to impact the city in the present day.
  • The lawsuit also sought a detailed accounting of the property and wealth that was destroyed in the massacre, the construction of a hospital in North Tulsa and a victim compensation fund, per the AP.
  • Wall tossed the case out on the basis of arguments made by the city, and by state authorities. 
  • An argument from the defendants also claims the plaintiffs did not suffer "individualized injury" from the attack.

  • Want more on race? Listen to Consider This on the Black maternal mortality crisis.

    What are they saying? In 2021, the group testified before a House panel to share what they experienced.

    Viola Fletcher was just 7 years old when the mobs descended on her hometown:

    I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.

    I am 107 years old and have never been – seen justice. I pray that one day I will. I have been blessed with a long life and have seen the best and the worst of this country. I think about the terror – horror — inflicted upon Black people in this country every day.

    Her younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, also testified on their unsuccessful attempts to seek justice through the legal system:

    We were shown that in the United States, not all men were equal under the law. We were shown that when Black voices called out for justice, no one cared.

    Lessie Benningfield Randle, whose grandmother's house was looted and destroyed in the attacks:

    I am here today, 106 years old, looking at you all in the eye. We have waited 100 years — no, we have waited too long. And I am tired. We are tired.

    So, what now?

  • Fletcher's memoir Don't Let Them Bury My Story will be available next month; focusing on her life following the massacre.
  • The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can't be filed again in state court, but the group may still appeal.
  • Public Radio Tulsa's Elizabeth Caldwell reports that today, lead attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons pledged to appeal the case, calling it "absurd," "a travesty" and "a complete injustice."
  • Read more:

  • How a Black cheer squad in Buffalo deals with the racist massacre blocks away
  • How do descendants of slavery honor their ancestors' legacy
  • A century after the race massacre, Tulsa confronts its bloody past
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    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.