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GREENWOOD Dist.–A Tulsa County District Judge said she would decide whether to dismiss a lawsuit seeking justice for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in seven days.
In a packed courtroom on Wednesday, and on the 109th birthday of the oldest survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Judge Caroline Wall delayed ruling on a motion to dismiss the historic public nuisance lawsuit.
First filed in 2020 by Justice for Greenwood attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, the lawsuit argues that the three last living survivors of the massacre (“Mother” Viola Ford Fletcher, 109, “Mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, and “Uncle Redd” Hughes Van Ellis, 102) are owed restitution by the city of Tulsa and other entities for failing to abate the public nuisance caused by the destruction of Historic Greenwood District.
The “Court will render a written decision within seven days,” Judge Wall said after the relatively brief hearing.
The city of Tulsa filed a new motion to dismiss the lawsuit after attorney Solomon-Simmons was previously ordered to rewrite his petition. Solomon-Simmons wants the case to proceed to the discovery and trial phase. The city of Tulsa, the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, Tulsa County Board of Commissioners and the Oklahoma Military Department are all defendants in the case 102 years after the city deputized a white mob to cross into Greenwood. Hundreds of homes, businesses, and residents were decimated in the racial domestic terror attack.
The defendants want the case dismissed.
“We just need the opportunity to prove it to you…to prove that a public nuisance occurred,” attorney Solomon-Simmons told Judge Wall during the hearing.
Tulsa Massacre lawsuit hangs in the balance
For their part, John Tucker, an attorney representing the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the plaintiffs did not specifically lay out how Judge Wall should legally repair the damage done to the community and the three living survivors.
The original lawsuit included the three survivors, their descendants and racial inequities decades after the massacre. The judge dismissed the descendants and modern-day racial inequity considerations from the case in August.
With the three remaining survivors now the only plaintiffs in the narrowed lawsuit, attorneys for the defense argue that they too should be dismissed, claiming that the judge doesn’t have the legal authority to repair the harm in a manner that he says should be left up to the legislature and the Governor.
“That’s like telling the court here are all the public policy matters that need to be sorted out,” Tucker said.
Meanwhile, attorney Solomon-Simmons argued that this stage of the case doesn’t require him to specify any remedies the judge should pursue. He simply wants an opportunity to have a fair trial.
In addressing the three living survivors, who were in the courtroom, Judge Wall and the packed courtroom clapped for “Mother” Fletcher as she turned 109 on Wednesday.
“We’re happy and blessed that she is here,” attorney Solomon-Simmons said. “But we’re sad that she’s here because 102 years ago she escaped an inferno.”
Justice or Just us?
Both sides of the case were expecting Judge Wall to rule immediately.
“[Mother Fletcher] deserves that. The community of Greenwood deserves that. More importantly, the law requires it,” attorney Solomon-Simmons said in closing.
Yet the judge declined to make an immediate ruling.
On Wednesday morning, The Black Wall Street Times reached out to the city of Tulsa to ask whether it planned to make a statement celebrating “Mother” Fletcher’s 109th birthday. The city has for years been accused of profiting from the story and tourism behind the Tulsa Race Massacre while refusing to honor the reparations recommendations outlined in a decades-old state report.
Michelle Brooks, Communications Director for the City of Tulsa, sent the following statement:
“On behalf of the city of Tulsa, Mayor Bynum extends his heartfelt wishes to Viola Fletcher on her remarkable 109th birthday. A survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Viola Fletcher has lived to share her story with people around the world more than a century after the worst event in Tulsa history.”
Yet no public acknowledgement of “Mother” Fletcher’s birthday was posted on any of Bynum’s social media accounts or city websites. No city proclamation had been introduced either.
“The city will not even have the decency to acknowledge” the survivors, attorney Solomon-Simmons said.