Survivors of a race riot that destroyed Tulsa’s black neighborhood 83 years ago cannot seek reparations in court because of the long-expired statute of limitations, a federal judge has ruled.
The judge dismissed the lawsuit filed last year against the city and the state by 150 survivors and about 300 descendants of those who lost property or were killed in the 1921 riot.
“That plaintiffs’ claims are barred by the statute of limitations is strictly a legal conclusion and does not speak to the tragedy of the riot or the terrible devastation it caused,” U.S. Senior District Judge James Ellison said.
His decision, issued Friday, was entered into the court’s record system Monday.
The city and state asked the judge to dismiss the case because of a two-year statute of limitations in civil cases.
“The court has really indulged any suggestion that the plaintiffs have asked him to, and he still can’t find a way to overcome statute of limitations,” said Larry Simmons, assistant city attorney.
Survivor Otis G. Clark said he was not sure what to make of the ruling and trusted his attorneys to take the next step.
“I’m 101 years of age, and I’ll just leave it to them,” said Clark, who was 18 when he saw a white mob burn his grandparents’ and parents’ homes.
The survivors’ attorney, Charles Ogletree Jr., planned to appeal.
“Even though many are elderly and some are seriously ill, they informed me this afternoon there is a lot of fight left in them,” he said.
The city’s then-thriving black community of Greenwood was reduced to ashes after whites and blacks clashed May 31, 1921, outside a courthouse where a black man was being held on allegations of assaulting a white woman.
Death toll estimates vary
The confirmed death toll was 37, but some estimates range as high as 300.
The plaintiffs alleged the statute of limitations did not apply because they did not have the information to bring their suit until a public commission published a report on the riot in 2001. They also said the fact that courts were openly hostile to blacks kept survivors from seeking restitution at the time.
The judge, however, found that riot victims in 1921 condemned the actions of the National Guard and police department. He also noted that more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the city and insurance companies at the time.