Survivors and descendants of those killed in the 1921 Tulsa massacre filed a lawsuit Tuesday to seek redress almost a century after a white mob ransacked and set fire to buildings in a thriving financial district once known as Black Wall Street, Oklahoma .
Lead plaintiff, 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, was a child at the time and “is still experiencing flashbacks of black bodies piled in the street while her neighborhood is on fire, resulting in her reliving terrorism all the time” read the complaint filed in Tulsa District Court. She is one of only two known living survivors.
“To date, no one has been held accountable,” said attorney Damario Solomon-Simmon at a press conference on Tuesday and announced the lawsuit. “Someone recently said that the people who committed the massacre almost got away with it. Well, they got away with it. Til today.”
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Worst civilian disruption since the Civil War, the Tulsa Massacre, began on the morning of May 31, 1921, when a black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman was arrested and detained in the Tulsa County courthouse. A large group of armed black men rushed through the courthouse to defend the man, fearing he might be lynched. This emerges from a 2001 report by the Oklahoma Commission investigating the 1921 Tulsa racial uprising. The man’s charges were later dropped.
By June 1, 1921, the lawsuit filed Tuesday had argued that “a large, angry white mob, including some members of the Tulsa Police Department, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department, and the National Guard,” had overwhelmed the 35 square meter blocks of police force All-Black Greenwood District, “Killing hundreds of black residents, injuring thousands more, burning down houses and businesses over a thousand, and stealing residents’ personal belongings”.
The 48-page lawsuit names seven defendants, including the city of Tulsa, current Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado, and the Oklahoma Military Division. It was filed under the state’s public harassment law, which the Attorney General used last year to compel opioid drug maker Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $ 465 million in damages.
In the years following the massacre, city and county officials have actively thwarted community efforts to rebuild and neglect the community of Greenwood, and mostly Black North Tulsa, in order to aid mostly white parts of the city, according to the lawsuit.
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Even today, unemployment in Tulsa’s black community is more than twice that of white Tulsans. The median household income of black residents is half that of whites. Black students are nine times more likely to be suspended from school, and life expectancy for North Tulsa residents is 11 years below life expectancy in the rest of the city, said Tulsa attorney Steven Terrill.
“We’re not just talking about what happened in 1921. We’re talking about what’s going to happen,” Solomon-Simmon told reporters. “We believe this lawsuit will succeed as there is no question that the defendants are causing a nuisance.”
The massacre received renewed attention in recent months after President Trump selected Tulsa as the location for a rally amid the ongoing racist reckoning of police brutality and racist violence. Trump postponed the date of his June rally to avoid coinciding with a June 19 celebration in the city’s Greenwood District to commemorate the end of slavery.
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Plaintiffs want the defendants to “reduce and continue to cause the public nuisance of racial diversity, economic inequalities, insecurity and trauma from their 1921 illicit acts and omissions” for 99 years after the massacre.
The lawsuit does not specify the dollar amount claimed by plaintiffs, but rather asks the court to state that “spending money and labor” can mitigate a public nuisance caused by the defendants. They want a scholarship program to be set up for descendants of the victims of the massacre and for Black Tulsa residents to be given priority on city contracts for the next 99 years.
The lawsuit aims, among other things, at a detailed accounting of property and assets lost or stolen in the massacre, the construction of a hospital in northern Tulsa and the establishment of a compensation fund for victims of the massacre in Tulsa. For the descendants of those who were killed, injured or lost in the massacre, immunity from all city and county taxes and ancillary costs is sought for the next 99 years.
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The Oklahoma National Guard Public Affairs Office issued a statement to Fox 23 in response to the lawsuit.
“There have been very mixed accounts of the role of the National Guard during the events of late May and early June 1921 in the Greenwood District. However, historical records show that a handful of guardsmen protected the Tulsa armory and the weapons inside from more than 300 rioters, ”the statement said. “The actions of these guardsmen have significantly reduced the number of deaths in the Greenwood District. In the days following the riot, the Oklahoma Guardsmen restored order in the area and prevented further attacks by both black and white Tulsans. Due to pending litigation, the Oklahoma National Guard will not make any further comments on the matter. “
The Associated Press contributed to this report.