An Oklahoma judge ruled Monday that a lawsuit seeking reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre can proceed, bringing new hope for some measure of justice for three survivors of the deadly racist rampage who are now over 100 years old and were in the courtroom for the decision. Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall ruled against a motion to dismiss the suit filed by civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons in 2020. The Tulsa-based attorney said after Wall announced her ruling that it is critical for living survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107, Viola Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, 101. “We want them to see justice in their lifetime,” he said, choking back tears. “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.”
The packed courtroom, which Wall noted may have been over capacity, erupted in cheers and tears after she handed down her ruling, the AP reports. Solomon-Simmons sued under Oklahoma's public nuisance law, saying the actions of the white mob that killed hundreds of Black residents and destroyed what had been the nation’s most prosperous Black business district continue to affect the city today. 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. It also seeks reparations for descendants of victims of the massacre. Chamber of Commerce attorney John Tucker said the massacre was horrible, but 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 massacre happened when an angry white mob descended on a 35-block area in Tulsa's Greenwood District, killing people and looting and burning businesses and homes. Thousands of people 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.
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