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UPDATE: Following Monday’s press conference, Judge Wall released her written order, which now allows the Justice for Greenwood team to file their appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. To view the written order, click here and scroll down to “07/07/2023 order.”
GREENWOOD Dist.–Days after a Tulsa County judge dismissed a historic lawsuit seeking restitution for survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, attorneys representing the plaintiffs announced their intention to appeal the ruling to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Packed inside Greenwood’s historic Vernon A.M.E. church, whose basement is the only structure that survived the city-sanctioned racial domestic terrorist attack, Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons blasted Tulsa County Judge Caroline Wall’s decision to dismiss the public nuisance lawsuit. He also made clear his intentions to appeal the highly criticized ruling to the state’s highest court.
“It seems every time Black people seek justice in this community and this nation the goalposts are moved,” attorney Damario Solomons-Simmons said. “But the good news is: It’s not over.”
Despite the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s conservative makeup, attorney Solomon-Simmons said he believes “the law and the facts are so clear” that the Justices will allow the case to proceed to trial.
“The judge did not have the courtesy to issue an order explaining her reasons for inexplicably dismissing this case. That’s not how justice is supposed to work. The public is supposed to understand what she possibly had on her mind after she told us that we could go forward and then she changed her mind,” Attorney Michael Swartz, a co-counselor from New York, said. He’s never seen that happen in his career, he added.
Notably, despite releasing a minute order on Friday night, Judge Wall didn’t alert the attorneys or the survivors about the decision. Attorneys found out through a reporter. Judge Wall also hasn’t yet released her full written order, something Justice for Greenwood attorneys require before they can file. the appeal.
This case represents Greenwood’s third attempt at justice. Residents filed lawsuits in 1922, immediately after the Massacre, but the Klan-filled courts refused to hear it. Another case in the early 2000s made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it refused to hear the case as well, citing statute of limitations.
Greenwood attorney vows to appeal after Tulsa judge dismisses Tulsa Massacre lawsuit
Monday’s press conference comes after Judge Wall quietly released her ruling online Friday afternoon, denying the three last known living survivors from having their day in court.
Attorneys representing the city of Tulsa filed two motions to dismiss the case after it was first filed in September of 2020. In their first motion to dismiss, attorneys for the city, county and state claimed the plaintiffs didn’t have “standing” to sue. Their arguments led to Judge Wall removing descendants and present-day systemic harms from consideration in the lawsuit. Survivors remained plaintiffs.
In their second motion to dismiss, the defendants argued the lawsuit didn’t specify how Judge Wall should remedy the harm and that she didn’t have the authority to do so even if it did. That court hearing, held on May 10, 2023, came on the same day as survivor “Mother” Fletcher’s 109th birthday.
Those arguments resulted in the the conservative judge, who follows Donald Trump on Twitter, completely dismissing the case, seemingly ending a years-long effort at reparations for a racist attack in which Black survivors remain alive.
“What this decision says is we can know Black blood is spilled, we can know Black bodies are buried…and we can say ‘so what?” Attorney Solomon-Simmons said regarding Judge Wall’s decision.
Public nuisance lawsuit, a unique approach to reparations
Calling the judge’s ruling “perfunctory, unfounded and nonsensical” in an email, attorneys for Justice for Greenwood are accusing the judge of “backpedaling” on her own previous August 2022 order, in which she stated, “the court cannot find beyond any doubt that Plaintiffs Randle, Fletcher and Van Ellis, Sr. can prove no set of facts which would entitle Plaintiffs to relief on their public nuisance claims.”
The unique reparations case utilized state law instead of federal law, thereby sidestepping the statute of limitations that caused a previous attempt at restitution to fail in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 2000s.
“He [Damario Solomon-Simmons] came with a different direction, and they didn’t know what to do with it. That’s why she hasn’t been able to answer you,” Rep Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa), a descendant herself, told attorneys about the Judge’s refusal to provide a written order.
“It’s the courts that hold the key and the cage to justice. And we’ve been waiting 102 years for them to unlock it,” Rep. Goodwin said.
Though attorneys representing the survivors plan to appeal the dismissal, the ruling adds to over a century of intergenerational racial trauma felt by Black Tulsans.
Racial trauma in Tulsa remains 102 years later as attorneys plan appeal of lawsuit dismissal
According to city of Tulsa’s own data, the latest Equality Indicators Report shows that residents in majority-Black North Tulsa continue to face an 11-year life expectancy gap with residents in South Tulsa, along with disparities in income, wealth, access to fresh food, policing and business ownership.
In a 2020 Human Rights Watch report, titled, “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” the international human rights organization described the obligation local officials have in remedying the 102-year-old harm that continues to impact the community.
“Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to provide effective remedies for violations of human rights,” the report stated. “The fact that a government abdicated its responsibility nearly 100 years ago and continued to do so in subsequent years does not absolve it of that responsibility today—especially when failure to address the harm and related action and inaction results in further harm, as it has in Tulsa.”Human Rights Watch, “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma”
In a response to the judge’s ruling dismissing “Mother” Viola Ford Fletcher, 109, “Mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, and “Uncle Redd” Hughes Van Ellis, 102, from the lawsuit, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum claimed the city was committed to supporting the restoration of Historic Greenwood District.
“The City remains committed to finding the graves of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims, fostering economic investment in Greenwood District, educating future generations about the worst event in our community’s history, and building a city where every person has an equal opportunity for a great life,” Mayor Bynum said in a statement to KTUL.
The mayor has previously said on national television he doesn’t believe the survivors and descendants of the worst racial domestic terrorism attack in U.S. history are entitled to cash payments.
City’s response to lawsuit dismissal echoes city’s response to the 1921 Massacre
The attack on May 31 and June 1, 1921, resulted in the city-sanctioned white mob ransacking, robbing, burning, bombing, and shooting to death over 300 Black men, women and children, over 200 businesses, and over `1,200 homes, according to the Tulsa Historical Society.
The city’s cookie cutter response to the dismissal of the public nuisance lawsuit reminds many of the city’s immediate response to the Massacre.
Deputized by the city of Tulsa, encouraged by local media, and aided by planes dropping bombs on the community, White citizens burned and destroyed over 36 square blocks of Greenwood in a matter of hours. While armed Black men, fresh from their tours in the World War, bravely defended their community as long as they could, they were incredibly outnumbered.
In the aftermath, the city of Tulsa withdrew responsibility by turning over relief efforts to the Red Cross to help the community rebuild. The city also attempted to rezone the area to confiscate land and discourage residents from rebuilding their homes.
The Oklahoma National Guard forced Black survivors to work manual labor as thousands of remaining Greenwood residents toiled in internment camps for up to 18 months. They were only able to leave if a White person vouched for them.
In his appeal, attorney Solomon-Simmons plans to bring descendants and other institutions, such as Vernon A.M.E. church, back into the lawsuit after Judge Wall struck them from it last year.
“That’s what this fight is about. It’s more than Greenwood. It’s about Black people across this nation,” attorney Solomon-Simmons said.
Millions around the nation and the world continue to keep their eyes on Tulsa as the Justice for Greenwood attorneys seek to move their appeal forward.