The fallout of the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
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TULSA, Okla. — The approaching centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre shines a light on the nearly century-long blight on the City of Tulsa and its failure to provide Justice for Greenwood. The deteriorating conditions in the Greenwood neighborhood and North Tulsa, caused by official acts of violence and disregard for the lives of the Black residents, still cry out for redress.
Justice for Greenwood Advocates, a team of civil and human rights lawyers led by Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon Simmons, has filed a lawsuit demanding the City and other defendants repair the damage they did in causing a public nuisance by their destruction of Greenwood in 1921, their continuing failure to rebuild what they had destroyed and their audacity in seeking to reap and, in fact, reaping benefits from their destructive acts. Indeed, Tulsa’s Mayor, G.T. Bynum, admitted in 2019 that “[i]n Tulsa, the racial and economic disparities that still exist today can be traced to the 1921 race massacre.”
The Massacre was one of the most heinous acts of racial terrorism committed in the U.S. by those in power against Black people since slavery. The suit’s lead plaintiff is Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle, who at 105 is one of the two known Massacre survivors still living. Mother Randle continues to experience flashbacks of Black bodies stacked up on the street as her neighborhood was burning. Other plaintiffs include:
- Vernon A.M.E., the only standing Black-owned structure from the Historic Black Wall Street era and the only edifice that remains from the Massacre;
- Laurel Stradford, great-granddaughter of J.B. Stradford who owned the Stradford Hotel in Greenwood, the largest Black-owned hotel in the United States at the time of the Massacre;
- Ellouise Cochrane-Price, the daughter of Massacre survivor Clarence Rowland and the cousin of Massacre victim Dick Rowland;
- Tedra Williams, the granddaughter of Massacre survivor Wess Young;
- Don M. Adams, the nephew of Massacre victim Dr. A.C. Jackson;
- Don W. Adams, great-grandson of Massacre survivor Attorney H.A. Guess;
- Stephen Williams, grandson of Massacre victim Attorney A.J. Smitherman who owned the nationally circulated Tulsa Star Newspaper;
- The Tulsa African Ancestral Society, whose membership includes descendants of Massacre survivors.
The lawsuit is based on the 1921 Massacre and its continued aftermath – the continuing wounds inflicted again and again by those who led and supported it. Greenwood, a neighborhood and community that once was a shining star for Black people throughout the United States, called Black Wall Street, was brutally destroyed by a large angry white Tulsa mob that included government officials. White elected and business leaders not only failed to repair the injuries they caused, they engaged in conduct to deepen the injury and block repair.
The lawsuit identifies seven defendants who have contributed to the public nuisance and unjustly enriched themselves at the expense of the Black citizens of Tulsa and the survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Five of the defendants – the City of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the then-serving Sheriff of Tulsa County, the State National Guard, a branch of the Oklahoma Military Department, and Tulsa Regional Chamber, also known as the Chamber of Commerce – were directly involved in the Massacre itself.
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, the City police department and the County Sheriff’s office deputized and armed white Tulsans to murder, loot, and burn the nearly 40 city blocks of the Greenwood District. The State National Guard participated with this angry white mob in killing and looting and destroying the property of Black residents of Greenwood. The City, Sheriff, Chamber, and County targeted Black community leaders and victims of the Massacre for prosecution as instigators of the Massacre – despite knowing who were truly responsible.
The Chamber joined with the other defendants in the immediate aftermath of the Massacre to impose martial law and coordinate the detention of the Massacre victims in internment camps, only releasing them to work if sponsored by white employers. The City, County, the Sheriff, and the Chamber of Commerce tried illegally to block Black Tulsans’ attempts to rebuild the Greenwood District. In the Decades following the Massacre, these defendants sought to quash any mention of the Massacre, fearing the impact it would have on the City and region’s reputation.
The Tulsa Metropolitan Planning Commission acted along with the City and County to isolate the Black community from the rest of Tulsa and fragment the community through city planning initiatives that destroyed the integrity of the Black community. The Tulsa Development Authority and its predecessor unjustly used their urban renewal powers to take property from Greenwood residents to make way for I-244 despite other viable alternatives. The Interstate divided the Greenwood neighborhood and community in two, creating a physical barrier between the North side, which had an overwhelmingly Black population, from the rest of the city, and displaced many hundreds of families and businesses.
Oklahoma law defines a nuisance as “unlawfully doing an act, or omitting to perform a duty, which act or omission . . . annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others . . . or . . . [i]n any way renders other persons insecure in life, or in the use of property.” A nuisance is public if it affects an entire community or neighborhood. Reaping benefits from their heinous acts, benefits that should go to the survivors and descendants of those who lost lives and property in the Massacre and those who are residents of Greenwood neighborhood and community is called “unjust enrichment.”
Survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (and their descendants) and their attorneys and supporters will hold a press conference this morning at 11:00am (CST). Due to Covid 19 restrictions, only members of the press will be allowed to attend in person. If you would like to attend virtually, please click here to register in advance for the Zoom Webinar of the live press conference.
Nationally, public health organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the American College of Emergency Physicians formally declared “institutional racism an urgent public health issue” and cities around the country are beginning to declare racism a public health crisis including Dallas, Denver, and Boston. It is also known that racism and discrimination decrease life expectancy for African Americans because “over time, experiences with racism and even chronic worrying about it can cause significant ‘wear and tear’ by increasing one’s allostatic load, the lifelong buildup of stress, which accelerates aging and puts African Americans at greater risk for chronic illnesses.”
“The Greenwood Massacre deprived Black Tulsans of their sense of security, hard-won economic power and vibrant community,” says Solomon-Simmons, a Tulsa native, “and created a nuisance that continues to this day. The nuisance has led to the devaluation of property in Greenwood and has resulted in significant racial disparities in every quality of life metric—life expectancy, health, unemployment, education level, and financial security. The Defendants in this case have continued the Massacre in slow motion for nearly a century.” Nicole Austin-Hillery, Executive Director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, notes that, “Our years of research in Tulsa reveal a city whose Black community is still reeling from the devastation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and suffering under pervasive racial discrimination that continues to this day.”
Solomon-Simmons is optimistic that the public nuisance strategy, successfully used in 2019 by the State of Oklahoma to win a $572 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson for creating a public nuisance through deceptive advertising of opioids, will achieve justice for Mother Randle, descendants of those who lost their lives and property in the Massacre, and the thousands of Black Tulsa residents who reside in the midst of the continuing public nuisance. “This litigation will compel the Defendant to finally do what is right: accept responsibility for its heinous crime of causing and continuing a nuisance to the present day and repairing it” states Attorney Solomon-Simmons.
Justice for Greenwood Advocates, in addition to Solomon-Simmons, includes local and national civil and human rights attorneys: J. Spencer Bryan and Steven Terrill of BryanTerrill, P.C., Professor Eric Miller of Loyal Marymount College of Law, Professor Emerita Adjoa A. Aiyetoro, Maynard M. Henry, Sr., Lashandra Peoples-Johnson and Cordal Cephas of Johnson Cephas Law PLLC, and Maynard M. Henry. The lawsuit has been filed in Tulsa County District Court.