After 100 years, justice still eludes the children of the Tulsa Race Massacre

Three survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre — all over 100 years old — are appealing a judge’s decision to dismiss their lawsuit seeking reparations.

As children, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, Hughes Van Ellis, Sr., 102, and Viola Fletcher, 109, saw their neighborhood burned to the ground by a racist mob in Tulsa, Okla. Now, in waiting for their appeal, they’ll face yet another injustice. They will likely die before they receive reparations for the lives and property that were violently snatched away in 1921. Officials in Tulsa are well aware of that reality. So am I, and that’s why I’m so angry.

Make no mistake. In dismissing a lawsuit filed by these elderly survivors of a massacre that killed an estimated 300 Black Americans and destroyed their prosperous community, Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall has delayed justice, and in this case, justice delayed is justice denied. I’m sure these brave elders know that, but they’ve vowed to fight on anyway.

In this May 2021 photo, Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, from left, Hughes Van Ellis Sr., Lessie Benningfield Randle, and Viola Fletcher, greet supporters from a horse-drawn carriage during a march in Tulsa, Okla.. … Read moreSue Ogrocki / AP

“We were forced to plead this case beyond what is required under Oklahoma standards, which is certainly a familiar circumstance when Black Americans ask the American legal system to work for them,” they said in a statement read by attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons. “And now, Judge Wall has condemned us to languish on Oklahoma’s appellate docket.”

“But we will not go quietly. We will continue to fight until our last breaths.”

They will need to do so while facing America’s posture of denial. It is the way our country has always approached the issue of reparations for Black people. Denial of wrongdoing, denial of responsibility, and ultimately, denial of compensation.

That posture of denial made it possible for the Supreme Court to gut the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and undo affirmative action just weeks ago. Eliminating such safeguards is easy when you believe that the effects of slavery stopped when it was abolished. It’s easy when you’re convinced that there are no repercussions from more than a century of Jim Crow. But if you understand the role systemic racism has played in denying African Americans access to everything from health care to housing, you know that these disparities don’t happen by accident.

In this photo provided by the University of Tulsa, two armed men walk away from burning buildings as others walk in the opposite direction during the June 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla.. … Read moreAP

Take the Tulsa Race Massacre, for example. It began, like so many of our country’s racist atrocities, with a Black man accused of assaulting a white woman. The details of what happened when Dick Rowland boarded an elevator with Sarah Page are murky, but when word about the accusation began to spread in the white community, multiple institutions worked in concert to carry out the attack on the well-to-do community known as Black Wall Street.

A report in the Tulsa Tribune claimed Rowland had attempted to rape Page, and an editorial announced that there would be a lynching. A group of Black men went to protect Rowland, and gunfire erupted when they were confronted by whites. Civil officials then selected scores of white men, deputized them, gave them arms and ammunitions, and sent them into Greenwood. Soon after, the state called up the National Guard. Thousands of Black residents were arrested. Then numerous insurance companies refused to pay claims to Black Tulsans who were insured.

In this May 2021 photo, Darius Kirk takes in a mural depicting the Tulsa Race Massacre in the historic Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla. ahead of centennial commemorations of the massacre.. … Read moreJohn Locher / AP

Thus, through the coordinated efforts of media, government and business, the Greenwood community lost $1.8 million in property, which would amount to more than $27 million today. That’s systemic racism, and that’s why African Americans still lag behind our white counterparts in so many measurable categories.

The survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre are owed reparations. The harm they suffered was generational in nature. The remedy should be generational, as well. So, even if the claimants die prior to settlement, justice demands that their families collect in their place.

Such a resolution would require admitting that stolen wealth directly affects future generations. It would also require rethinking the outcome of a 2004 lawsuit filed against companies that profited from slavery. In that case, U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle Sr. ruled that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to file the suit, since they were generations removed from slavery.

In my view, that ruling was wrong. When lives, labor and wealth are violently ripped away, the suffering is not contained in a generation. It is spread out over time. The children of the Tulsa Race Massacre know that, and that’s why they’re still fighting. Every African American must follow their example, and fight until our very last breaths.

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