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Oklahoma Supreme Court hears arguments in Tulsa Race Massacre case

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Oklahoma Supreme Court hears arguments in Tulsa Race Massacre case

Apr 02, 2024 | 5:35 pm ET
By Barbara Hoberock
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Oklahoma Supreme Court hears arguments in Tulsa Race Massacre case
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The Oklahoma Judicial Center is the headquarters of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments Tuesday in its courtroom in the Capitol. (Photo by Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday was asked to overturn a district judge’s decision to dismiss a case brought by survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

The state’s high court spent nearly an hour and a half hearing oral arguments in the appeal brought by survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and the late Hughes Van Ellis Sr.

The survivors, who are both over 100 years old, and their descendants believe they’re owed restorative measures due to the losses incurred during the massacre and in the century since.

“Over a third of the homes and businesses destroyed during the massacre were never rebuilt and many of those people were never heard from again,” said Damario Solomon-Simmons, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “Eight-thousand people were made homeless overnight.”

Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, white mobs attacked, burned and destroyed 35 blocks of homes and businesses in the Greenwood district. Officially, 36 Black residents were killed, though some estimates indicate scores more died in the area known as Black Wall Street.

Plaintiffs have waited almost 103 years for their opportunity to be heard in court to prove what happened to them and their community, he said.

A Tulsa County judge dismissed their claims alleging public nuisance and unjust enrichment.

Named as defendants are the city of Tulsa, Tulsa Regional Chamber, Tulsa County Commissioners, Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado and the Oklahoma Military Department.

Solomon-Simmons asked the justices to send the case back to district court so his clients could proceed with discovery.

The massacre created a public nuisance in the Greenwood neighborhood, he said. Although it happened in 1921, the property is still blighted, Solomon-Simmons said.

For 102 years, the perpetrators escaped responsibility, he said.

He said his clients are not asking for compensation, but equitable relief.

He said the district court judge improperly ruled that they had not detailed a remedy at the pleading stage.

The case was filed Sept. 1, 2020, in Tulsa County. It was dismissed July 7, 2023.

Garry Gaskins is solicitor general for Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, whose office is representing the Oklahoma Military Department. 

As of 1921, all entities sued were protected by sovereign immunity, Gaskins said. 

Plaintiffs have no grounds for recovery, he said.

The plaintiffs also have not identified a public nuisance, and the claims cannot be fixed by a court, Gaskins said.

John Tucker, an attorney for the Tulsa Regional Chamber, said the plaintiffs are asking for things a district court can’t do.

The plaintiffs are also asking to expand Oklahoma’s public nuisance laws, Tucker said.