BREAKING: Oklahoma judge dismisses reparations case stemming from 1921 Tulsa 'race massacre'

Judge Caroline Wall said the three remaining survivors of the massacre of 1921 have not shown proof of "individualized injury."

Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY
An Oklahoma judge has dismissed a case brought by two individuals who said they are owed restitution over the Greenwood Massacre, often called the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

Those who brought the suit, who are over 100 years old, were said by Judge Caroline Wall to not have shown proof of "individualized injury." The plaintiffs were arguing that they were seeking relief from the "public nuisance" of the damage caused by the rioting, and to "recover for unjust enrichment" that had been gained by others through what they called "exploitation of the massacre."

The City of Tulsa, arguing against the restitution, asked for the case to be dismissed with prejudice, saying "simply being connected to a historical event does not provide a person with unlimited rights to seek compensation from any project in any way related to that historical event."

"If that were the case, every person connected to any historical event could make similar unjust enrichment claims against every museum or point of remembrance," the City attested.

This was the third suit brought seeking restitution, with cases in 1922, only a year after the incident, and again in the early 2000s. The complainants were asking for "a 99-year tax holiday for Tulsa residents who are descendants of victims of the massacre in the north Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood."

The violence happened between May 31 and June 1, 1921. The massacre stole the lives of hundreds of Tulsa residents, somewhere between 75-300 by official accounts, and saw the burning of businesses and homes.

Those who brought the suit may still file an appeal, but not in state court. Judge Wall, the City Sentinel reports, dismissed the case with "extreme prejudice."

The case was brought by the three remaining survivors of the massacre, including Lesse Benningfield Randle, Hughes Van Ellis, and Viola Fletcher, who was 7-years-old at the time. She gave an account of what happened that day to Congress in 2021. 

"I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left her home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire," she said. "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."

The Library of Congress has said that during those few days, "mobs of white residents attacked Black residents, homes, and businesses, as well as cultural and public institutions in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK, an oil boom city and one of the wealthiest Black communities in the United States. Thirty-five blocks were systematically looted and burned, destroying 190 businesses and leaving 10,000 people homeless."

State Rep. Regina Goodwin, who represents Greenwood, said the ruling was "unjust." Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum said that while the city was dedicated to finding the graves of those killed over those few days in 1921, he opposes making current Tulsa residents pay for those crimes committed over 100 years ago.

To that, Goodwin replied that "The city was complicit in 1921. They're complicit today." She also suggested that the restitution "could be handled legislatively."

The precipitating incident to the Tulsa massacre was one in which a black elevator operator, Dick Rowland, 19, allegedly and accidentally stepped on the foot of a white woman, Sarah Page, 17, in an elevator. She lost her balance and when he reached out to help her, she screamed, according to reports at the time. Media reports hyped the incident, claiming that Rowland attacked Page. One local headline read "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator."

Armed white men took to Greenwood in retaliation.

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