Oklahoma Top Court Rejects Case By ‘Black Wall Street’ Race Massacre Survivors

Oklahoma Race Massacre Survivors

Oklahoma’s highest court dismissed a lawsuit by the last two known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, who sought reparations for the violence and destruction that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Black people. The Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld a judge’s decision from last year to dismiss the case, stating that the state’s public nuisance law could not address the lingering consequences of “unjust, violent, and tragic moments of our history.”

The massacre, which occurred on May 31, 1921, saw a large white mob overwhelm Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, a prosperous community nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” Estimates suggest that as many as 300 people, most of them Black, died in the violence.

Lawyers for Lessie Benningfield Randle, 109, and Viola Fletcher, 110, argued that the city of Tulsa and others created a public nuisance of racial disparities, economic inequalities, and trauma that needed to be addressed. Alongside a third massacre survivor, Fletcher’s brother Hughes Van Ellis, who died while the case was pending, they contended that the effects of the massacre continue to be felt today and that the city and others should compensate victims, replace buildings, and return land to the Black community.

Grievances legitimate but…

Justice Dustin Rowe, an appointee of Republican Governor Kevin Stitt, wrote that while the “plaintiffs’ grievances are legitimate, they do not fall within the scope of our state’s public nuisance statute,” which is limited to problems involving criminal or property-based conflicts. He asserted that “the continuing blight alleged within the Greenwood community born out of the massacre implicates generational-societal inequities that policymakers—not the courts—can only resolve.”

Seven other justices joined Rowe’s opinion, while a ninth, Justice James Edmondson, partially dissented. In response, the plaintiffs’ legal team announced plans to ask the court to reconsider its decision, stating that “the court system is the very place where such harms are meant to be remedied.” They also called on the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the massacre.

At the time of the massacre, the Greenwood area had a population of over 10,000 Black residents, during a period when racial segregation was strict, and the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in Oklahoma.

The violence began after a white woman told police that a Black man had grabbed her arm in an elevator in a downtown commercial building. Police arrested the man, and the Tulsa Tribune reported that he had tried to assault the woman. White residents surrounded the courthouse, demanding the man be handed over.

When a white man tried to disarm a Black World War I veteran, a shot rang out, sparking the violence that led to the destruction of 35 blocks of Greenwood.