Survivors and descendants of those killed in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking reparations nearly a century after a White mob looted and lit fires to buildings in a flourishing financial district once known as Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street.
The main plaintiff, 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, was a child at the time and “still experiences flashbacks of Black bodies stacked on the street as her neighborhood was burning, causing her to constantly relive the terror,” according to the complaint filed in Tulsa County District Court. She is one of only two known living survivors.
“No one, to this day, has been held accountable,” Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmon said at a press conference Tuesday, announcing the lawsuit. “Someone said recently that the folks that committed the massacre almost got away with it. Well, they did get away with it. Until today.”
The worst civil disturbance since the Civil War, the Tulsa race massacre began on the morning of May 31, 1921, when a Black man accused of sexually assaulting a White woman was arrested and jailed at the Tulsa County Courthouse. A large group of armed Black men rushed the courthouse to defend the man, fearing he would be lynched, according to a 2001 report from the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The charges against the man were later dropped.
By June 1, 1921, the lawsuit filed Tuesday argues “a large, angry White mob, including some members of the Tulsa Police Department, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department, and the National Guard,” had overwhelmed the 35-square-blocks of the all-Black Greenwood District, “killing hundreds of Black residents, injuring thousands more, burning down homes over one thousand homes and businesses and stealing residents’ personal property.”
The 48-page lawsuit names seven defendants, including the city of Tulsa, the current Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado, and the Oklahoma Military Department. It was filed under the state’s public nuisance law, which the state attorney general used last year to force opioid drug maker Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $465 million in damages.
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 the city, according to the lawsuit.
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.
“We’re not just talking about what happened in 1921. We’re talking about what’s still happening,” Solomon-Simmon told reporters. “We believe this lawsuit will be successful because there is no question there is a nuisance created by the defendants.”
The massacre received renewed attention in recent months after President Trump selected Tulsa as the location for a rally amid the ongoing racial reckoning over police brutality and racial violence. Trump moved the date of his June rally to avoid coinciding with a Juneteenth celebration in the city’s Greenwood District commemorating the end of slavery.
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.” They want a scholarship program to be established for descendants of the massacre victims and want Black Tulsa residents to receive priority for city contracts for the next 99 years.
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.
The Oklahoma National Guard Office of Public Affairs issued a statement to Fox 23 in response to the litigation.
“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. However, the historical record shows that a handful of Guardsmen protected the Tulsa armory and the weapons inside from more than 300 rioters,” the statement said. “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.