Oklahoma says it won’t discuss a settlement with survivors who are seeking reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and have appealed a Tulsa County judge’s dismissal of the case last month.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has agreed to consider the survivors’ appeal, and the state attorney general’s litigation division filed its response Monday.
There are just three known survivors of the attack still living, all of them more than 100 years old. Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis have sued for reparations from the city, state and others for the white mob’s destruction of the once-thriving Black district known as Greenwood. Several other original plaintiffs who are descendants of survivors were dismissed from the case by the trial court judge last year.
“It’s no surprise that the state, which took part in a lawless massacre of American citizens, has refused to settle,” their attorney, Damario Solomon-Simmons, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
“The survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre are heroes, and Oklahoma has had 102 years to do right by them,” their lawyer added. “The state’s efforts to gaslight the living survivors, whitewash history, and move the goal posts for everyone seeking justice in Oklahoma puts all of us in danger, and that is why we need the Oklahoma Supreme Court to apply the rule of law.”
The lawsuit was brought under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, saying 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’s Black community. It alleges Tulsa’s long history of racial division and tension stemmed from the massacre.
But the state says that argument was properly dismissed by District Court Judge Caroline Wall. The judge properly determined that the plaintiffs failed to outline a clearly identifiable claim for relief, Assistant Attorney General Kevin McClure wrote in the state’s response to the appeal.
“All their allegations are premised on conflicting historical facts from over 100 years ago, wherein they have failed to properly allege how the Oklahoma Military Department created (or continues to be responsible for) an ongoing ‘public nuisance,’ McClure wrote.
McClure claims the state’s National Guard was activated only to quell the disturbance and left Tulsa after the mission was accomplished. The survivors’ lawsuit alleges National Guard members participated in the massacre, systematically rounding up African Americans and “going so far as to kill those who would not leave their homes.”
Solomon-Simmons said the state’s response denies the need for restorative justice for Black victims.
“We have people that suffered the harm that are still living, and we had the perpetrators, the city, the state, the county chamber, they are still here also,” he said. “Yes, the bombings have stopped. The shooting has stopped. The burning has stopped. But the buildings that were destroyed, they were never rebuilt.”
The attorney general’s office represents only the Oklahoma Military Department. Tulsa officials have declined to discuss the appeal, citing the ongoing litigation. A Tulsa Chamber of Commerce attorney previously said that the massacre was horrible, but the nuisance it caused was not ongoing.
In 2019, Oklahoma’s attorney general used the public nuisance law to force drugmaker Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $465 million in damages for the opioid crisis. The Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned that decision two years later.