Judge dismisses lawsuit seeking reparations for 1921 Tulsa race massacre

An Oklahoma judge has dismissed a lawsuit seeking reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, undoing an effort to seek some measure of legal justice by survivors of the deadly race rampage.

Judge Caroline Wall on Friday dismissed with prejudice the lawsuit seeking to force the city and others to reward the destruction of the once-thriving black neighborhood known as Greenwood.

The order comes in a case brought by three survivors of the attack, all of whom are now over 100 and who filed a lawsuit in 2020 hoping to see what their lawyer called “the justice of their lifetime”.

Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum said in a statement that the city has yet to receive the full court order. “The city remains committed to finding the graves of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, fostering economic investment in the Greenwood District, informing future generations of the worst event in our community’s history, and build a city where every person has an equal chance for a great life,” he said.

A lawyer for the survivors – Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis – did not say on Sunday whether they plan to appeal. But a group supporting the lawsuit suggested they would likely challenge Wall’s decision.

“Judge Wall effectively sentenced the three living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre to languish – truly to death – on the Oklahoma appellate roll,” the group, Justice for Greenwood, said in a statement. “There is no semblance of justice or access to justice here.”

Tulsa County District Court Judge Wall wrote in a brief order that she was dismissing the case based on arguments from the city, regional chamber of commerce and other state and local government agencies. She ruled against the defendants’ motions to dismiss and allowed the case to continue last year.

Local court elections in Oklahoma are technically nonpartisan, but Wall has described herself as a “constitutional conservative” in previous campaign questionnaires.

The lawsuit was filed under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, claiming the actions of the white mob that killed hundreds of black residents and destroyed what had been the most prosperous black business district in the countries continue to affect the city today.

He argued that Tulsa’s long history of racial division and tension stemmed from the massacre, in which an angry white mob descended on a 35-block area, looting, killing and burning it. Besides those killed, thousands more were left homeless and living in a hastily built internment camp.

The city and insurance companies never compensated the victims for their losses, and the massacre ultimately led to racial and economic disparities that still exist today, the lawsuit argued. He called for a detailed accounting of property and wealth lost or stolen in the massacre, the construction of a hospital in north Tulsa, and the creation of a victim compensation fund, among other things.

A Chamber of Commerce attorney previously said the massacre was horrific, but the nuisance it caused was not ongoing.

Fletcher, who is 109 and the oldest survivor, published a memoir last week about the life she lived in the shadow of the massacre. It will be widely available for purchase in August.

In 2019, Oklahoma’s attorney general used the public nuisance law to force opioid drug maker Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $465 million in damages. The Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned that decision two years later.

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