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‘This issue isn’t dead’: Tulsa Race Massacre lawsuit seeks reparations for emotional, physical damages

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Tulsa Race Massacre

Black Wall Street in the Greenwood District of Tulsa burns during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Editor's note: In commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, The OU Daily Enterprise team has assembled five stories about the Greenwood District's past, present and future for our summer issue of the Crimson Quarterly magazine. Click below to read more.

Lessie Benningfield Randle was just 6 when she watched her home town go up in flames. Now at 106, her testimony may make way for reparations to be paid.

On May 31, 1921, an angry mob of white Tulsans stormed the prosperous Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After the massacre, the people of Greenwood rebuilt the town without any financial assistance from the City of Tulsa.

Randle, known as “Mother Randle” to the Justice for Greenwood Foundation — a group that advocates for reparations to be paid to the massacre survivors and descendants — stated in the February lawsuit that the events of the massacre have caused her to experience “emotional and physical distress that continues to this day.” The lawsuit also states that Tulsa government officials are “enriching themselves by promoting the site of the massacre as a tourist attraction.”

Damario Solomon-Simmons is the lead lawyer on the case at Solomon-Simmons Law. New York-based international law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel has also joined the legal fight for reparations. 

The lawsuit’s lead plaintiffs are Randle and other massacre survivors Viola “Mother” Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis Sr. Six descendants of survivors are also included in the case along with the Tulsa African Ancestral Society and Historic Vernon A.M.E. church. 

The suit alleges that the acts committed during the massacre were unreasonable, unwarranted and/or unlawful and have created public nuisance to this day. The lawsuit claims the defendants — the City of Tulsa and other officials — have unjustly received benefits from the massacre, and therefore, the plaintiffs should recover those benefits.

The lawsuit is seeking a court order, via Oklahoma’s Public Nuisance Law, to require the City of Tulsa to pay reparations to lessen the “racial disparities, economic inequalities, insecurity and trauma” caused by the massacre.

The suit cites a quote from Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, when he said, “In Tulsa, the racial and economic disparities that still exist today can be traced to the 1921 race massacre.”

Bynum previously spoke about reparations in February 2020 in an interview with News Channel 8 in Tulsa. 

“I know people have a lot of opinions on both sides when it comes to reparations, but the thing I’m focused on is not just cash payments to people,” Bynum said in the interview. “I think getting in and trying to make cash payments to people, it divides the community on something we should be united on.”

Jericka Handie, an OU journalism graduate and former OU Daily staff member, is the media and community outreach assistant at the Justice for Greenwood Foundation in partnership with Solomon-Simmons Law. 

“(Those who work with the Justice for Greenwood Foundation) fundamentally believe that we have a responsibility to affect change. With the history of Greenwood and it being so horrific, we see how vile it truly is and how financial compensation was really never given,” Handie said. “And that's just not right. We cannot have peace and harmony and equality and all these things until we actually have restorative justice.”

Handie said the Greenwood Rising project — an intended memorial for the massacre and historical education site — is an empty gesture without proper reparations from the Tulsa government.

Justice for Greenwood shared in a March 11 tweet:

“Dear Greenwood Rising: We don’t want your Tulsa Race Massacre-themed Disneyland. Shiny buildings, museums and coffee shops won’t make us forget how you and the City of Tulsa refuse to acknowledge the inherent anti-Blackness Tulsa is built upon.”

Handie said the city should be held accountable for its failure to restore what Greenwood lost in the massacre.

“What you ignore, you empower,” Handie said. “And for a long time, Tulsa city officials have given power to profit and greed, rather than the community itself and specifically Black Tulsans.”

“We simply don't want to own the truth of our past.”

- Rilla Askew, author of "Fire in Buelah"

OU professor Rilla Askew, who teaches a section in OU’s Tulsa Race Massacre Presidential Dream Course, said the long history of racial injustice in America illustrates exactly why reparations are needed for the massacre. 

Askew, who authored "Fire in Beulah,” a novel based on the events of the massacre, has spent her career studying the institutions in which racism operates in America. Askew said the racial climate of the United States directly led to the massacre. 

From the first ships carrying enslaved people arriving in America in 1619 to the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Askew said the oppression of Black Americans is a systemic issue.

Askew said this is evidenced by the continuous unjust treatment of Black Americans even after slavery was abolished. Jim Crow laws, segregation, voting restrictions and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan all contributed to the systemic othering and oppression of Black people.

In 1921, the Greenwood District was booming with so much business, it became known as “Black Wall Street.” Amid the racial tension, lynchings and terrorization from the KKK, Greenwood’s success was a bright spot in a deeply racist society.

But on May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a Black teenager, entered an elevator with Sarah Page, a white woman. Page exited the elevator screaming and rumors began to swirl.

The following day, an angry white mob had formed, claiming — without evidence — that Rowland had sexually assaulted Page. By that night, the white mob descended on Greenwood. For two days, white Tulsans burned and looted the district while terrorizing and murdering the Black residents of Greenwood. The case against Rowland was dismissed after Page refused to press charges, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society

Askew said after historically coming out on top due to colonizing and oppressing other cultures, white people resented Greenwood’s economic success.

“(It was) the wealth that was created and the jealousy of the success of Greenwood and other Black towns,” Askew said. “White folks weren't happy. They just weren't happy.”

The violence of the massacre has often been glossed over in historical retellings, something Askew said contributes to the lack of support for reparations. Oklahoma's schools have seen various levels of required race massacre education, with new standards passed first in 2002, then in 2012, 2019 and most recently in 2020.

In addition to the lack of historical education, Askew said some news organizations originally tried to hide the truth of the massacre, and Black news organizations were some of the only outlets that covered the event.

“It's the problem that has always been the problem,” Askew said. “We simply don't want to own the truth of our past.”

Askew said reparations are needed for Greenwood to properly move forward. 

“It’s about the legacy that has endured for 100 years, that has made the challenges for the citizens of Greenwood and the Black citizens of Tulsa, and you can extrapolate this to the whole country,” Askew said. “This is about equity — not just equality, but equity. And we haven't dealt with that.”

Handie, who attended Jenks High School — just an 18-minute drive from Greenwood — said the massacre was not mentioned at her school until she asked her teacher about it in class. 

“I brought it to the attention of my teacher, and he maybe gave one or two sentences about it and called it a riot,” Handie said. “A riot implies that there was a fight on both sides, so I could already tell he didn't have the real history to tell us.” 

Handie said her experience was completely different at OU when Karlos Hill hosted a webinar series on the history of Greenwood.

Hill is the African and African-American Studies Chair at OU and a professor for the OU Presidential Dream Course about the massacre. Hill said he had studied the massacre early in his career, but did not understand the extent of the devastation until he moved to Oklahoma in 2016 and visited Tulsa.

Hill visited the Vernon A.M.E. church — one of the plaintiffs of the lawsuit — and said while the events of the massacre were 100 years ago, the wounds it caused are still present. 

“If you go down into the basement and you touch the pipes and the beams, you can feel, you can still see where the fire was and how it's scarred,” Hill said. “There's all these physical reminders within the church.”

Hill said that one argument against reparations is that the massacre happened too long ago for reparations to be useful. 

“These institutions within this community are still feeling the effects and (are) still navigating them,” Hill said. “This issue isn't dead, even though the principals who initiated it and those who have been harmed, most of them, are gone.”

Hill said the massacre was an act of terrorism, and the U.S. has a history of paying reparations to people affected by terrorism — so long as those people are not a group of Black Americans. 

Hill said that when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, the country did not hesitate to help the victims and their families. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001 raised $7 billion in the aftermath of the attacks.

“Whites aren't opposed to reparations when it's benefiting other white people,” Hill said. “But when it's people of color who have been harmed by racist policies, racial violence or racism, all of a sudden reparations, there are all these excuses.”

"What could Black Wall Street have been if the city had helped to rebuild, if the insurance companies had paid restitution?"

- Karlos Hill, OU African and African-American Studies chair

Although Hill supports the fight for reparations in Tulsa, he said it may be difficult to win them through the court system. Hill said that historically, reparations are granted through legislative action, not court-ordered action. 

Similar to the Tulsa Race Massacre, Florida experienced its own act of racist terrorism. The Rosewood Massacre of 1923 took place in Rosewood, Florida, when a white mob burned down a rural Black town. 

The bill that was passed to grant reparations to those affected by the Rosewood Massacre avoided using the word “reparations” and instead based the request for financial compensation on “property value.” The bill passed with bipartisan support.

Although Greenwood was forced to pick itself up and out of the ashes on its own after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Hill said reparations are still needed for the town to have a full and fair opportunity to recover from the tragedy.

“It's a true shame, because people often ask me, ‘What could Black Wall Street have been, had it not been destroyed?’ But I think an even better question is, ‘What could Black Wall Street have been if the city had helped to rebuild, if the insurance companies had paid restitution?’” Hill said. “‘What could Black Wall Street have been, even after it had been destroyed?’”

Handie said Hill’s way of teaching inspired her to pursue a career as an activist.

“There are not enough safeguards in place to protect our marginalized communities, especially our Black communities, who helped build this country and built this country for free,” Handie said. “I wanted to be on the front lines in whatever way I could.”

Handie said the movement for reparations is gaining steam due to organizations like Justice for Greenwood raising awareness about the massacre, but some people still have reservations.

“There's a lot of City of Tulsa officials and people in Tulsa who are pushing against our movement … and not stepping up to the plate to seek justice and reparations for the people who have suffered for a long time,” Handie said. “We're trying to apply pressure in the ways that we know so we can try to get them on board because we've seen so much pushback.”

Sen. James Lankford, who serves on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, was asked to resign from the commission in January after he attempted to dispute the results of the 2020 Presidential election. Lankford was accused of invalidating the votes counted in predominantly Black populations. Lankford did not resign and instead issued an apology letter

“What I did not realize was all of the national conversation about states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan was seen as casting doubt on the validity of votes coming out of predominantly Black communities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit,” Lankford wrote in the letter.

Handie said the devastation the Greenwood District suffered and still grapples with today has been drastically overlooked. When Greenwood was at its most profitable point, Black-owned businesses lined the streets. But following the massacre, 35 blocks and over 1,000 homes were left in ruins.

“The community is struggling, the victims and descendants saw their livelihoods destroyed, and we've seen it culminate into their lives now with not being able to have that financial prosperity, those wealth-creating assets,” Handie said. “We've seen them struggle for so long, and we'd love for the City of Tulsa to put the community over profit and greed and actually use their legislative powers and voice to provide this compensation for them, because it's way overdue.”

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