Nearly a century ago, the Greenwood district of Tulsa was a bustling neighborhood home to about 10,000 black residents. Filled with churches, libraries, movie theaters and businesses, the area was so prosperous that it earned the nickname Black Wall Street.
Then, in just a handful of days, Greenwood all but disappeared. The unrest began when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black man employed as a shoeshiner, was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman named Sarah Page. Between May 30 and June 2, 1921, hordes of white people—some armed and aided by the government—descended on Greenwood, massacring its residents and destroying nearly 40 square blocks of buildings and homes. All told, historians estimate that the mob killed as many as 300 black people and left around 10,000 without housing.
None of these criminal acts have ever been prosecuted by the government at any level, as the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 concluded in its 2001 report. Previous legal attempts to secure reparations for the victims of the massacre, including a lawsuit dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, have all failed.
This week, a group of survivors and their descendants filed a lawsuit against the city in the Tulsa County District Court, demanding reparations for the long-lasting harm experienced by black residents both during and after the events of 1921. The lawsuit lists seven defendants, including the Tulsa County sheriff, the Oklahoma National Guard and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, according to Maria Cramer of the New York Times.
Per the 2001 report, city officials in many instances conspired with white citizens to attack Greenwood’s black citizens. Per the Oklahoma Historical Society, local police deputized 500 white men and armed them with weapons.
“These newly empowered men looted, burned, and killed with that police authority,” the society notes, adding that while law enforcement’s response “may not be a primary cause of the massacre, … their actions once the violence began made the situation more deadly.”
Though the National Guard was mobilized in response to the violence, many reports indicate that its response was delayed. Some troops were preoccupied with protecting white neighborhoods against a “nonexistent, black counterattack.” Others reportedly shot at African Americans at various points.
“The massacre was one of the most heinous acts of racial terrorism committed in the U.S. by those in power against black people since slavery,” Damario Solomon-Simmons, one of the lead attorneys on the case, tells DeNeen L. Brown of the Washington Post. “White elected officials and business leaders not only failed to repair the injuries they caused, they engaged in conduct to deepen the injury and block repair.”
The number of people killed by the mob was significantly underreported at the time of the massacre, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. Historians continue to piece together the full extent of the damage wrought by white citizens and the local government.
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After the attacks, the National Guard arrested thousands of black Tulsans and forced them to live in tents in internment camps for months on end.
“Government officials committed no public money to help Greenwood rebuild,” a Human Rights Watch report published earlier this year states. “Rather, they impeded rebuilding, even rejecting offers of medical and reconstruction assistance from within and outside Tulsa.”
An eyewitness account written by black Oklahoma lawyer Buck Colbert Franklin describes white people bombing Greenwood from private planes, shooting black residents in the streets, and looting homes and businesses. The searing testimony, only rediscovered in 2015, is now housed in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“[Survivors] talk about how the city was shut down in the riot,” curator Paul Gardullo told Smithsonian magazine’s Allison Keyes in 2016. “They shut down the phone systems, the railway. … They wouldn’t let the Red Cross in. There was complicity between the city government and the mob. It was mob rule for two days, and the result was the complete devastation of the community.”
The case’s lead plaintiff, 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, still has flashbacks to the horrors of 1921, including memories of corpses being stacked on the street.
“She constantly relives the terrors,” lawyer Eric Miller tells the Times. “And yet the city of Tulsa has done nothing to compensate her for the damages it has inflicted on her life.”
Other plaintiffs include Don M. Adams, nephew of black surgeon A.C. Jackson, who was shot in the stomach and bled out for five hours before dying, according to the Times, and the great-great granddaughter of hotel owner J.B. Stradford, per Adam Gabbatt of the Guardian.
As the centennial of the massacre approaches, Tulsa has reopened a commission to locate the graves of its victims, who are believed to have been laid to rest in mass burials somewhere in the city. No mass graves have been found yet, reports the Post.
Solomon-Simmons tells the Times that he’s hopeful the case for reparations will fare better than previous attempts because it is based on a state law that prohibits a “public nuisance” that “annoys, injures or endangers” a community or neighborhood. In 2019, he points out, pharmaceutical corporation Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay Oklahoma $572 million for causing a “public nuisance” by intentionally misleading the public about the dangers of opioids.
The new lawsuit argues that the massacre “created a nuisance that continues to this day,” says Solomon-Simmons to the Guardian. “The nuisance has led to the devaluation of property in Greenwood and has resulted in significant racial disparities in every quality of life metric—life expectancy, health, unemployment, education level, and financial security.”
The lawyer adds, “The defendants in this case have continued the massacre in slow motion for nearly a century.”