TULSA, Okla. — Survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma against the City of Tulsa on Tuesday seeking justice and reparations nearly a century after the horrific attack.
Lessie Benningfield Randle, 105, one of the two last known survivors of the massacre, is the lead plaintiff in the case.
Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons said in a press conference that the effects of the 1921 events can still be felt in Tulsa today.
“No one, to this day, has been held accountable,” Solomon-Simmons said. “Someone said recently that the folks that committed the massacre almost got away with it. Well, they did get away with it. Until today.”
Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, white Tulsa residents took the streets armed with weapons — many of which were provided by city officials — and slaughtered Black residents.
The massacre, which is still often referred to as the worst incident of racial violence in America’s history, saw 35 square blocks destroyed, hundreds of people injured and thousands more left homeless. The mobs also destroyed Black Wall Street, which at the time was a thriving business district and one of the wealthiest Black neighborhoods in the country.
The massacre began after a 19-year-old Black man was accused of sexually harassing a white woman.
Black residents who stayed in the city have long dealt with the trauma associated with the night, and Randle is no exception — the recent lawsuit claims that she still has flashbacks of bodies “stacked up on the street as her neighborhood was burning.”
A commission formed in 2001 claimed that the city conspired with white residents to harm Tulsa’s Black community and recommended payments be given to survivors and their relatives.
Nearly 20 years later, no payments have been made.
Neither the city nor insurance companies ever compensated victims for their losses, and the massacre ultimately resulted in racial and economic disparities that still exist today, the lawsuit claims.
In the years following the massacre, city and county officials actively thwarted the community’s effort to rebuild and neglected the Greenwood and predominantly Black north Tulsa community in favor of overwhelmingly white parts of Tulsa, according to the suit.
“We’re not just talking about what happened in 1921. We’re talking about what’s still happening,” Solomon-Simmons said at Tuesday’s news conference. “We believe this lawsuit will be successful because there is no question there is a nuisance created by the defendants.”
Still today, unemployment in Tulsa’s Black community is more than twice that of white Tulsans, median household income for 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 the life expectancy in the rest of the city, said Tulsa attorney Steven Terrill.
The plaintiffs want the defendants to “abate the public nuisance of racial disparities, economic inequalities, insecurity and trauma their unlawful actions and omissions caused in 1921 and continue to cause 99 years after the massacre.”
The lawsuit does not specify a dollar amount sought by the plaintiffs but asks the court to declare that a public nuisance created by the defendants is capable of being abated “through the expenditure of money and labor.”
The suit also seeks a detailed accounting of the property and wealth lost or stolen in the massacre, the construction of a hospital in north Tulsa and the creation of a Tulsa Massacre Victims Compensation Fund, among other things. It also seeks immunity from all city and county taxes and utility expenses for the next 99 years for descendants of those who were killed, injured or lost property in the massacre.
Other defendants include the Tulsa Regional Chamber, Board of County Commissioners, Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, Tulsa County Sheriff and the Oklahoma Military Department.
Soon after the suit was filed, the Oklahoma National Guard‘s Office of Public Affairs released a statement claiming the actions of its guardsmen “substantially reduced the number of deaths” during the massacre.
“There are widely varying accounts of the role played by the National Guard during the events of late May and early June 1921 in the Greenwood District,” the statement read. “However, the historical record shows that a handful of Guardsmen protected the Tulsa armory and the weapons inside from more than 300 rioters. The actions of these Guardsmen substantially reduced the number of deaths in the Greenwood District. In the days following the riots, Oklahoma Guardsmen restored order to the area and prevented further attacks by both black and white Tulsans. Due to pending litigation, the Oklahoma National Guard will offer no further comment on this subject."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.