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State Supreme Court sides with Tulsa in 1921 Race Massacre reparations lawsuit

Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Viola Fletcher, down-center, looks on as attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, left, speaks to reporters about the status of the race massacre survivors' reparations case on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, on the steps of the Oklahoma Supreme Court building in Oklahoma City.
Max Bryan
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OPMX
Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Viola Fletcher, down-center, looks on as attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, left, speaks to reporters about the status of the race massacre survivors' reparations case on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, on the steps of the Oklahoma Supreme Court building in Oklahoma City.

In its opinion, the court said the survivors' arguments did not fall within Oklahoma's public nuisance law.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld on Wednesday a Tulsa judge's dismissal of a lawsuit from the remaining survivors of the 1921 Race Massacre seeking reparations from the city and other entities they allege were complicit. The decision from the justices was eight to one.

In its opinion, the court acknowledged the findings of a legislative commission formed in 1997, which said the Greenwood neighborhood struggled to rebuild after the massacre's "staggering" destruction. As many as 300 people were killed and more than 1,200 buildings destroyed in the racist attack fueled by claims that a Black man raped a white woman.

"Even after the initial violence subsided, local officials engaged in actions that exacerbated the harm. State and local officials participated in the mass arrests and detention of Greenwood residents, and black detainees could only be released upon the application of a white person," the opinion says.

However, the court did not find that the survivors and their attorneys presented a "conflict resolvable by way of abatement."

"Though Plaintiffs' grievances are legitimate, they do not fall within the scope of our State's public nuisance statute."

Survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, 109, and Viola Fletcher, 110, unsuccessfully argued that the ongoing effects of the massacre are still felt today. Previously, public nuisance claims were used by government agencies to hold organizations involved in the opioid crisis responsible.

Fletcher's brother, Hughes Van Ellis, was also a plaintiff in the reparations suit, but he died last year at the age of 102.

In a statement Wednesday evening, Justice for Greenwood, the organization representing the survivors, said they "will file a petition for rehearing with the Oklahoma Supreme Court asking the Court to reconsider its decision."

"The destruction of forty-square blocks of property on the night of May 31, 1921 through murder and arson clearly meets the definition of a public nuisance under Oklahoma law," reads the statement.

The city of Tulsa issued also issued a statement saying it "respects the court’s decision" that underscores the importance of developing Tulsa's historically Black neighborhoods.

"Through economic development and policy projects, the 1921 Graves Investigation, and a renewed community vision for the Kirkpatrick Heights & Greenwood Master Plan, the City remains committed to working with residents and providing resources to support the North Tulsa and Greenwood communities," the statement says.

Ben Abrams is a news reporter and All Things Considered host for KWGS.
Oklahoma Public Media Exchange
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