Advocates for survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, and their descendants, say they hope a landmark lawsuit filed against the Oklahoma city and other defendants could finally lead to some form of restitution, despite decades of previous effort.
“It’s, in my view, probably the worst act of domestic terrorism that we’ve ever seen,” said McKenzie Haynes, a litigation associate at the Shulte, Roth and Zabel firm serving as co-counsels on the lawsuit led by Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, in an interview with CBC Radio’s Day 6.
“Black people in America have been hunted and treated like non-humans for centuries, and what happened in Tulsa in 1921 was just a testament of that.”
The massacre began on May 31, 1921, after a group of white rioters descended on Tulsa’s Greenwood District, following allegations that a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland had assaulted a 17-year-old elevator operator named Sarah Page. An estimated 300 people were killed in the attack.
Some reports suggest the rioters were deputized by local law enforcement officials, with the group shooting Black residents and setting fire to businesses, homes and churches. First-hand accounts also suggest that turpentine or nitroglycerin bombs were dropped and men fired gunshots from planes.
The attack destroyed Greenwood, a Black community so prosperous and affluent, it was dubbed “Black Wall Street” by people like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by Solomon-Simmons in September 2020 are set to submit, on June 1, a legal response to a motion to dismiss the suit.
Previous efforts for reparations, including a 2003 suit filed by civil activist Johnny Cochrane and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree were blocked due to an expiry of the statute of limitations.
‘Full accounting’ of damages
The exact toll of the damage is still only estimated to this day, because a “full accounting” of the human and property damages has yet to be conducted, according to writer and New America fellow Caleb Gayle.
“The sad part, I think, for many advocates of reparations in Tulsa is that … the math isn’t that difficult to figure out what was lost back then,” Gayle told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
According to Gayle, part of what makes this most recent lawsuit distinct from previous reparations efforts is that it “doesn’t actually name a number” owed to survivors.
“They don’t price out what they’re owed,” he said.
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Instead, the suit calls for a number of different measures, including a full accounting of the damage, and measures intended to improve economic conditions in the community.
“They do ask for a variety of things, like the abatement of taxes for 99 years,” Gayle said.
‘The inequalities are tremendous’
The team behind the most recent lawsuit sourced data from a 2020 Human Rights Watch report that demonstrated, among other things, a lower quality of life for Black Tulsans than their white counterparts.
“Their property was taken, businesses were destroyed, people were murdered, families were separated and [north] Tulsa became a ghetto,” Haynes said, referring to the part of the city that is home to a large percentage of the city’s Black residents.
“The inequalities are tremendous.”
Haynes says that the latest suit draws on elements from a 2019 ruling that ordered U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million US for the company’s role in fueling the state’s opioid drug crisis.
According to Haynes, Oklahoma has a unique “public nuisance statute” that allows litigation well past the statute of limitations in the event of an “ongoing public nuisance.”
“We wanted to parallel the race massacre and the harm that was caused as a public nuisance, basically saying that the massacre itself caused a public nuisance that is continuing to this day,” Haynes said.
Tulsa officials have been hesitant to support reparations for survivors of the massacre.
Daily newspaper Tulsa World reports that while the city’s Republican Mayor G.T. Bynum supports efforts toward equity, he does not support direct cash payment.
“The most commonly mentioned way is some sort of legal judgment that would be paid from the city’s sinking fund. That raises property taxes for everybody,” Bynum said, noting the city has made economic investments in north Tulsa.
While hopeful that increased attention on the events of 1921 will provide needed pressure on city and state governments to act, Gayle said he doesn’t believe “one legal attempt is going to ever be sufficient to get anything done.”
Nonetheless, there are policy efforts, including the Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act currently before members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The act could help survivors and descendants, by providing an easier path to accessing reparations.
“There are policy options … and I think the policy ones are probably more likely to hold, because we’ve seen it take hold in other places,” Gayle said.
Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.
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