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Oklahoma Supreme Court dismisses lawsuit from 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors

The GOP-led court described the plaintiffs' claims as "political" and without sufficient evidence. The survivors' attorneys say they'll keep fighting.

From left: Lessie Benningfield Randle, Hughes "Uncle Redd" Van Ellis, and his sister Viola Ford Fletcher, the last three survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Ellis died in October 2023 at the age of 102. (Naomi Keitt/KJRH-TV)

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has dismissed a case brought by the remaining survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. They brought suit in 2020 against the government entities they say owe them reparations for the two-day White Supremacist terrorist attack, which leveled a Black city district more than a hundred years ago when the plaintiffs were young children.

The 8-1 decision from the Republican-led bench in Oklahoma City on Wednesday cited a lack of sufficient evidence for two of the claims, while an additional accusation of public nuisance was deemed to fall outside of state standards for criminal liability.

The judgment upholds a July 2023 decision from District Judge Caroline Wall that dismissed the claims of 109-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle; Viola Ford Fletcher, who turned 110 in May; and Fletcher’s brother Hughes “Uncle Redd” Van Ellis Sr., who died in October at 102.

“With respect to their public nuisance claim, though Plaintiffs' grievances are legitimate, they do not fall within the scope of our State's public nuisance statute,” the eight concurring judges wrote in their opinion.

“We further hold that Plaintiffs' allegations do not sufficiently support a claim for unjust enrichment, nor do the allegations sufficiently support a claim for the unauthorized use of name and likeness.”

The long-awaited decision comes just weeks after the 103rd anniversary of the massacre, and 10 months after the state’s high court first announced it would hear the case. It was originally filed in district court against the City of Tulsa, its county government and chamber of commerce, as well as the local sheriff’s office and state military.

Local African Americans have long alleged that military aircraft were involved in the 1921 attack, which left more than a thousand dead or injured and rendered nearly 10,000 homeless. The Oklahoma National Guard brought armored vehicles to the city and removed thousands of Black residents from Greenwood into detention centers. The incident began with a false accusation of rape made by a White woman against a Black teenager.

The 2020 case is only the latest filed by survivors concerning the deadly affair, including a high-profile 2003 case following an official state report that recommended direct payment of reparations. The top recommendations were never implemented and the lawsuit was dismissed as being outside of the statute of limitations. To date, no survivors have ever been compensated for their losses in the massacre.

The massacre received renewed attention amid the nationwide racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, leading to the latest lawsuit. Fletcher, Van Ellis, and Randle testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in 2021 concerning their experiences and the case, meeting with President Joe Biden in Oklahoma soon after. Fletcher co-authored a book on her experiences, “Don't Let Them Bury My Story: The Oldest Living Survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Her Own Words,” in 2023.

Though supporters had hoped a fresh look at the case would yield different results, the high court’s decision this week signals what could be the end of the road for the winding saga. Following the ruling, Tulsa officials pointed to the city government’s recent economic development programs meant to benefit Black residents.

“The City remains committed to working with residents and providing resources to support the North Tulsa and Greenwood communities,” they said in a statement.

The survivors’ legal team says they remain committed to the case, which they will try to have reviewed again by the conservative-heavy court. Five of the nine justices were appointed by Republican governors, though Wednesday's ruling was nearly unanimous.

“Our clients… will file a petition for rehearing with the Oklahoma Supreme Court asking the Court to reconsider its decision,” the attorneys said, noting their opposition to the ruling that the public nuisance claim is more a political matter than a legal one.

“It is not a political question simply because the suit seeks to remedy wrongful acts perpetrated by a white mob against Black people—the court system is the very place where such harms are meant to be remedied.”

The attorneys have also called for a federal investigation into the matter, led by the U.S. Department of Justice. As of yet, the federal government has not involved itself in the aftermath of the massacre. (The 2003 lawsuit was dismissed in federal court, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.)

“In 103 years since the Massacre, no court has held a trial addressing the Massacre and no individual or entity has been held accountable for it,” the survivors’ attorneys said.

“As Mother Fletcher celebrated her 110th birthday last month and Mother Randle will celebrate the same birthday later this year, time is of the essence for this investigation to begin.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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