What we know about the lawsuit filed by the last survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Attorneys for the two remaining survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre said Thursday they will petition the Oklahoma Supreme Court for a rehearing in the case seeking reparations for one of the worst single acts of violence against Black people in U.S. history.

In an 8-1 decision on Wednesday, the state's highest court upheld a decision made by a district court judge in Tulsa last year to dismiss the case. Although the court wrote that the plaintiff's grievances about the destruction of the Greenwood district, also known as “Black Wall Street,” were legitimate, they did not fall within the scope of the state's public nuisance statute.

Here are some things to know about the lawsuit that seeks reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Attorneys for Viola Fletcher, 110, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 109, said they intend to file a petition for rehearing with the court, essentially asking the court to consider the case again because they believe it erred in its decision.

“The destruction of forty-square blocks of property on the night of May 31, 1921, through murder and arson clearly meets the definition of a public nuisance under Oklahoma law,” the attorneys said in a statement. “Faithful application of the law compels the conclusion that Mother Randle and Mother Fletcher have stated a claim for relief. They are entitled to a trial.”

If the plaintiffs were to die, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons said he believes Oklahoma law would allow the case to continue with the plaintiffs' estates. If the Supreme Court denies the petition, the case is effectively over, although Solomon Simmons said they are “continuing to explore new legal avenues that will hold defendants accountable.”

In addition to the petition for rehearing, the attorneys called on the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the massacre under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007. That law, named for Black teenager from Chicago who was abducted and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, allows for the reopening of cold cases of violent crimes against Black people committed before 1970.

WHAT DOES THE LAWSUIT ALLEGE?

The suit was an attempt to force the city of Tulsa and others to make restitution for the destruction of the once-thriving Black district by a white mob. In 1921 — on May 31 and June 1 — the mob, including some people hastily deputized by authorities, looted and burned the district, which was referred to as Black Wall Street.

As many as 300 Black people were killed, more than 1,200 homes, businesses, school and churches were destroyed, and thousands of survivors were forced for a time into internment camps overseen by the National Guard. Burned bricks and a fragment of a church basement are about all that remain today of the more than 30-block historically Black district.

Besides the allegations of a continuing public nuisance, attorneys for the survivors argued that Tulsa appropriated the historic reputation of Black Wall Street “to their own financial and reputational benefit.” They argue that any money the city receives from promoting Greenwood or Black Wall Street, including revenue from the Greenwood Rising History Center, should be placed in a compensation fund for victims and their descendants.

WHAT ARE THE PLAINTIFFS SEEKING?

Among other things, the lawsuit sought a detailed accounting of the property and wealth lost or stolen in the massacre, and the establishment of a Victims Compensation Fund to benefit the survivors and the descendants of those killed, injured or who lost property in the killings — as well as for longtime residents of Greenwood and North Tulsa.

It also sought the construction of a hospital in north Tulsa, the creation of a land trust for all vacant and undeveloped land that would be distributed to descendants, and the establishment of a scholarship program for massacre descendants who lived in the Greenwood area.

The lawsuit also requested that the descendants of those who were killed, injured or lost property be immune from any taxes, fees, assessments or utility expenses by Tulsa or Tulsa County for the next 100 years.

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