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GREENWOOD Dist.–As the Oklahoma Supreme Court prepares to hear an appeal from survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre the office of Oklahoma’s top law enforcement officer is weighing in on the case.

Since filing a lawsuit in September 2020, “Mother” Viola Ford Fletcher, 109, “Mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, and “Uncle” Hughes Van Ellis, 102, have been waiting for their day in court.

On July 7, Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall dismissed the historic reparations case. Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, in a new approach to reparations, used state public nuisance law to argue the harm from the city-sanctioned attack on over 35 square blocks of Greenwood has never been abated.

He was shocked when the case was dismissed but wasted little time in filing an appeal to Oklahoma’s highest court.

tulsa survivors
Seated, a photo of two out of three known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre at the Embassy of the Republic of Ghana on Tuesday, February 23, 2023 | Photo by Nehemiah D. Frank with The Black Wall Street Times

“If this truly is a nation of laws and a state based on the law, then my clients, the last-known survivors of the massacre, should get the opportunity that no one else who suffered the devastation had the privilege of, Solomon-Simmons stated.

Yet according to the office of Oklahoma Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond, the survivors should never see the opportunity become reality.

Oklahoma Attorney General disputes facts on role of National Guard during Tulsa Race Massacre

Among the several city, county and state defendants listed in the historic reparations lawsuit, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office represents the Oklahoma National Guard / Military Department in the case.

On Monday, Assistant Attorney General Kevin McClure responded to the ongoing Tulsa Race Massacre lawsuit, claiming the Oklahoma National Guard / Military Department had nothing to do with the destruction and trauma of Greenwood victims and survivors, and neighborhoods during the 1921 Massacre.

In his response to the petition seeking to revive the case, Assistant AG McClure was asked if the AG’s Office would like to enter into a settlement with the survivors. He declined. Instead, he gave a full-throated defense of the National Guard while ignoring key details that aren’t disputed by historians.

Let’s Break It Down: Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office responds to 1921 Massacre lawsuit

“Plaintiffs have sued the State of Oklahoma ex rel., the Oklahoma Military Department et al., for an alleged “public nuisance” claim that occurred in 1921. The district court properly dismissed for failure to allege a cognizable claim for relief,” Assistant AG McClure wrote in the Monday, August 14 filing.

Similar to Tulsa attorneys representing the City as a defendant, the state AG’s office claims the lawsuit should be thrown out because plaintiffs don’t outline how the judge should remedy the harm.

Yet attorneys for the survivors, who hail from firms in both Oklahoma and New York, claim Oklahoma law doesn’t require them to submit remedy proposals before a trial has begun.

tulsa survivors
Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons announces his team filed an appeal with the Oklahoma Supreme Court seeking to overturn the decision by Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall to dismiss the historic reparations lawsuit for the three living survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (Photo by Chris Creese/Creeseworks)

“It’s an impossible pleading standard and it has no basis in Oklahoma’s notice pleading code or decisional law,” said Randall Adams, co-counsel for Survivors and litigation partner at Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP.

Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office claims National Guard played no negative role in 1921 Massacre

The response from the Oklahoma AG’s Office continued by referring to the Massacre of Black people as a “riot”, adding that the National Guard only played a positive role in one of the worst instances of racial domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

“…their Amended Petition still failed to allege how the Oklahoma Military Department, who were activated only to quell the riot and left after their mission was accomplished in 1921, continues to harm them today,” Assistant AG McClure stated.

A brief glance at the Tulsa Historical Society website shows that the Oklahoma National Guard, also referred to as the Oklahoma Military Department, participated in marching Black residents of Greenwood to internment camps across the city.

tulsa survivors
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, mobs of white residents brutally attacked the African American community of Greenwood, colloquially known as “Black Wall Street,” in the deadliest racial massacre in U.S. history. Amidst the violence, both white rioters and the Oklahoma National Guard rounded up black residents of Greenwood and forced them to detention centers. More than 6,000 African Americans were interned at the Convention Hall, the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, and the baseball stadium McNulty Park. Some were held for as long as eight days. (Courtesy of National Museum of African American History & Culture)

Newspaper articles refers to “concentration camp” for Tulsa Massacre survivors

In the early hours of the second day of destruction on June 1, 1921, after the city-deputized White mob had already destroyed much of Greenwood, Gov. James Robertson declared martial law and sent in the state National Guard.

“Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days,”

according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

The treatment of Black residents directly after the Massacre draws parallels to the unconstitutional internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Japanese Americans who were alive during the forced imprisonment were provided reparations through the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 by Ronald Reagan, a Republican president, according to the National World War II Museum.

Roughly 82,000 Japanese Americans each received checks worth $20,000 and a formal apology. Meanwhile, state leaders continue to deny any responsibility for providing restitution to the the three last known living survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

The Black Wall Street Times reached out to the Tulsa Historical Society for comment. While it clarified that there were local Guardsmen who fired on innocent Black residents of Greenwood, those men hailed from a separate, militia-style local group not to be confused with the Oklahoma National Guard.

An archivist with the Tulsa Historical Society also provided newspaper clippings that described the locations the National Guard marched Black residents to as “concentration camps.”

A news clipping from the Tulsa Daily World on June 6, 1921. Courtesy of Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.

Did Oklahoma National Guard downplay death toll of Black Greenwood residents?

While the state AG’s Office claims the Oklahoma National Guard acted responsibility during and after the Massacre, it’s unclear whether the Guard intentionally downplayed the number of Black people who perished.

In a new book by journalist Victor Luckerson titled, “Built From the Fire,” he uses research, testimony from descendants of Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, and newspaper archives to pull together little-known facts about the Massacre and the people who rebuilt their community.

“…but no one knew for sure where the bodies were taken. Dumped in the Arkansas River, perhaps, or hastily tossed into a mass grave on the outskirts of town. Early on, even members of the National Guard themselves said this was likely; Maj. Charles Daley estimated that as many as 175 people, mostly black, were killed,” the book reads on page 107.

The official death toll was listed at just 36 people–26 Blacks and 9 Whites. Yet a Tulsa Tribune article dated June 1, 1921 paints a much larger picture of the human carnage, sparked by White supremacist hate.

In an article titled, “Fire Blazes Black District; All Negroes Interned As Guardmen Patrol City,” the Tulsa Tribune documents a much higher death toll of 68 Black victims and even more wounded.

“At this hour a complete check on the total number of persons wounded had not been completed, but police officials estimated that at least 100 whites had been shot while it was believed the negro wounded reach to twice that figure.”

Tulsa Tribune, June 1, 1921

According to the Tulsa Historical Society, historians now believe the death toll is over 300 Black men, women and children.

Oklahoma AG’s Office calls Tulsa Race Massacre survivors’ claims “stale”

Collectively, the three last-known living survivors of the Massacre hold 319 years of life between them, and many of their supporters fear the courts and Oklahoma officials are seeking to wait out the clock until they pass away.

In the final sentence of his response, Assistant AG McClure appears to add weight to those fears, referring to the 102-year effort by survivors as “stale claims.”

“The district court’s decision to dismiss Plaintiffs’ lawsuit must be affirmed as the doctrine of laches prohibits stale claims from being reviewed after over 100 years,” the document reads.

In a response to our request for comment, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma AG’s Office said he does not comment on pending litigation. While the case began before AG Drummond won election to his position, he’s chosen not to defend the state in litigation in the past. It’s unclear why he’s chosen to defend the state against survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Ultimately, the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision will determine whether the case will continue to trial. If so, it would mark the first time city, county and state entities ever had to give an official accounting of their role in the Massacre.

Follow the Black Wall Street Times for updates.

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...

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