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A quiet hope morphed into tears of joy in a Tulsa County courtroom on Monday after a judge ruled a lawsuit seeking justice for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre moves forward.
For the first time in 101 years, attorneys representing historic Greenwood District, home to the original Black Wall Street, will force the City of Tulsa and other entities to take the stand and defend their role in the destruction of businesses, homes, and over 300 Black men, women and children.
In a packed courtroom where many were forced to stand, Judge Caroline Wall ruled the City of Tulsa’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit was “denied in part and granted in part.”
While it’s unclear exactly what changes may need to be made to the lawsuit, the ruling essentially means Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons and his team at Justice for Greenwood may proceed to the discovery phase of a trial, according to a statement he made to CNN.
Coincidentally, the historic ruling came down in a courtroom that used to belong to Judge Carlos Chappelle, a Black man.
Following the ruling, which brings Greenwood closer to reparations than any time in the last century, Attorney Solomon-Simmons gave an emotional speech, highlighting the historic moment.
“We got a lot of work to do to prove. And we can prove it, we will prove it. But I appreciate her giving us the opportunity to show that we had the necessary information to move past a motion to dismiss,” Solomon-Simmons said.
Me, my aunt, and Seth Bryant —great-grandson of AJ Smitherman of the Tulsa Star that was burned down and never reopened after the Tulsa Race Massacre. This is us summoning the Black Excellence that is our BWS legacy after a historic court hearing. #JusticeforGreenwood pic.twitter.com/OpoQbl9NCp
— Nehemiah D. Frank (@nehemiahdfrank) May 3, 2022
Attorney argues City of Tulsa created a “public nuisance” in 1921
While two previous attempts at seeking justice in the courts had failed, Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons expressed confidence that his lawsuit, which utilizes state law, would be successful from the moment he filed in March of 2021.
The lawsuit lists the City of Tulsa, County Boards, Tulsa Regional Chamber, Oklahoma Military Department and other entities as defendants in the lawsuit.
After waiting months for a hearing, defendants filed for a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, asserting that the last three living survivors and descendants of the Massacre didn’t have standing to sue.
Judge Caroline Wall held a hearing in September of 2021, hearing arguments from both sides, but no decision was made. Meanwhile, “Mother” Viola Ford Fletcher, the eldest of the three known living survivors, turns 108 on May 10, sparking fears among some in the community that the defendants are seeking to wait out the clock until no living survivors remain.
“Guess what, we’re going to prove the nuisances. We’re gonna show what the abatement plan is gonna be, and we’re gonna get justice for Greenwood,” Attorney Solomon-Simmons said.
— The Black Wall Street Times (@TheBWSTimes) May 2, 2022
Tulsa Regional Chamber attorney claims survivors have no standing to sue
Previously, we highlighted how Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons is using state law to argue the defendants created a “public nuisance” in 1921 that has never been abated. Seeking remedies in the form of an acknowledgment of the harm, a victim’s compensation fund, and other remedies, Attorney Solomon-Simmons successfully convinced Judge Wall that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to a trial.
Meanwhile, John Tucker, an attorney representing the Tulsa Regional Chamber, argued the Tulsa Race Massacre didn’t meet the requirement of a public nuisance because the bombing, burning, stealing and killing of Greenwood homes, businesses and lives were only “violations of private rights.”
Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons countered, matching each crime that occurred with the matching state law outlawing that crime.
Earlier the defense tried to claim that the Tulsa Race Massacre was a disruption of private rights and not public rights.
Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons responded with a list of public rights that were disrupted by the massacre.
— The Black Wall Street Times (@TheBWSTimes) May 2, 2022
Descendants hopeful that justice will be served
Kristi Williams is a descendant of Greenwood leaders who owned the famous Dreamland Theatre. At one moment in the hearing, Attorney Solomon-Simmons referenced the destruction of the theatre. Williams’ face remained stoic on the outside, potentially masking a storm of emotions.
“This was a long time coming, and I’m glad that the survivors now can hopefully, you know, have their day in court and it’s sooner rather than later,” Williams told The Black Wall Street Times just after the ruling.
“But it shows we have to keep fighting and keep fighting because the city still doesn’t want to take responsibility for what happened.”
Ironically, the weather outside the courtroom appeared to mirror the emotions of the many Greenwood residents who crowded into the courtroom. The ruling came down just before 5 p.m. Hours later, a torrential downpour rained over Tulsa before revealing a vibrant rainbow.
The stakes remain high as the judicial system appears to be the only viable route towards reparations and restitution for the Greenwood community.
Both Oklahoma’s legislative leaders and the state’s governor have not warmed to the idea of repairing the harm caused by local, county and state government entities.
State Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa) is also a descendant of victims from the Massacre. Earlier this year, she proposed a bill that would provide $300 million for survivors and descendants of the Massacre. Yet, her bill never made it out of committee.
“Right now, we got life. And we’re excited. All the hard work and creativity that Attorney Solomon-Simmons has brought to date is working. So we gotta keep pushing, pressing and praying,” Rep. Goodwin told The Black Wall Street Times.
Inside the courtroom, the tense emotions were palpable as members of the community waited for the decision to come down. Moments after Judge Wall gave her ruling, the courtroom morphed into a family reunion as people embraced each other, hugging, sharing tears, and enjoying the moment together.
Despite being 101 years old, “Uncle Redd” Hughes Van Ellis heard with his own ears the moment the judge ruled for the lawsuit to proceed, as he and the other living survivors absorbed the moment.
Follow The Black Wall Street Times for updates as this trial proceeds.