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On Thursday, attorneys representing the last three living survivors and descendants of Tulsa Race Massacre victims announced a Tulsa judge has denied a motion to fully dismiss plaintiffs’ claims that the Massacre was a public nuisance under Oklahoma law.
Judge Caroline Wall’s Aug. 3 ruling allows survivors Viola Ford Fletcher (108), Lessie Benningfield Randle (107) and Hughes Van Ellis (101) to proceed to the discovery phase in their effort to prove that the city of Tulsa and other defendants were involved in the Tulsa Race Massacre and created a public nuisance that continues to impact Black Tulsans, according a press release from the survivors’ attorneys.
The historic ruling marks the first time in 101 years that an Oklahoma judge has ruled survivors of the Massacre may proceed to the discovery phase of a trial.
According to the American Bar Association, the discovery phase is the formal process of exchanging information between the parties about the witnesses and evidence they’ll present at trial. Discovery enables the parties to know before the trial begins what evidence may be presented. It includes depositions—statements recorded outside of court given under oath by any person involved in the case.
City of Tulsa closer to standing trial for Tulsa Race Massacre
Three months ago, a historic court ruling paved the way for the City of Tulsa to stand trial for its role in perpetuating the Tulsa Race Massacre after Judge Wall refused to fully dismiss the case. On May 2nd, 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.”
From May 31 through June 1, 1921, a large white mob completely decimated Tulsa’s thriving, all-Black community of Greenwood. The mob, which included members of the Tulsa Police Department, the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department and the Oklahoma National Guard, as well as other city and county leaders, overwhelmed the approximately 40-square-block community, killing hundreds of Black residents, injuring thousands more, burning down over one thousand homes and businesses and stealing residents’ personal property.
The damage caused during the Massacre is estimated to be approximately $200 million in today’s dollars.
“The Court’s ruling is historic,” said Sara Solfanelli, special counsel for pro bono initiatives at Schulte Roth & Zabel. “This victory not only recognizes that the Massacre was a devastating attack on the Black community 100 years ago, but clears the path for our clients to prove that it was also a public nuisance that continues to harm the community today.”
Judge dismisses some plaintiffs
“The Massacre deprived Black Tulsans of our sense of security, hard-won economic power and vibrant community,” says Damario Solomon-Simmons, a Tulsa native and one of the lead attorneys on the case. “The nuisance has led to the continued destruction of life and property in Greenwood in every quality of life metric—life expectancy, health, unemployment, education level, and financial security.”
According to the 13-page court order, Judge Caroline Wall dismissed certain plaintiffs and defendants, as well as the unjust enrichment claims. Yet, she also further allowed plaintiffs to amend the petition to cure potential deficiencies that would strengthen their claims.
For instance, while the three last living survivors of the Massacre remain as plaintiffs in the case, the historic Vernon AME Church was dismissed from the case, as the judge ruled it wasn’t the same entity as during the Massacre. Judge Wall also dismissed aspects of the petition that connected the Massacre to redlining and unjust policing today.
Discovery phase to come soon
Yet, while the case has been narrowed with some plaintiffs removed, “the core of the case” remains alive, attorney Michael Swartz said on Thursday.
“We look forward to proving our case around the Massacre’s ongoing catastrophic effects and demonstrating the actions that defendants must take to repair and rebuild the Greenwood community during our clients’ lifetimes,” added Solomon-Simmons.
According to Solomon-Simmons, attorneys for the survivors plan to move forward with refiling an amended petition and beginning depositions in the coming weeks.
Michael Swartz, a partner at Schulte, Roth and Zabel, said the team expects to be able to conduct discovery–including the depositions of Gov. Kevin Stitt and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum.
“They are the acting authorities for those entities, absolutely. We anticipate getting discovery from the institutions themselves…a whole lot of people will be sitting down for depositions,” Swartz said.
In addition to Solomon-Simmons, Swartz, and Solfanelli, the Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys J. Spencer Bryan and Steven Terrill of Bryan & Terrill Law, PLLC, Professor Eric Miller of Loyola Marymount College of Law, Maynard M. Henry, Sr., Lashandra Peoples-Johnson and Cordal Cephas of Johnson Cephas Law PLLC, Kymberli J. M. Heckenkemper of SolomonSimmonsLaw, and Randall T. Adams, McKenzie Haynes, Ekenedilichukwu (Keni) E. Ukabiala, Angela Garcia, Alex Wharton, Erika L. Simonson, Vincent W. Moccio, and Melanie S. Collins of SRZ.