The last three known survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre – one of the country’s deadliest acts of racial violence – will appeal a judge’s recent decision to dismiss their lawsuit for reparations in the state Supreme Court , their lawyers announced on Monday.
Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, Viola Fletcher, 109, and her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, 102, were involved in a years-long legal battle against the City of Tulsa and other officials over opportunities that were taken away from them when the city’s Greenwood neighborhood — named “Black Wall Street” – was burned to the ground in 1921 by a violent white mob.
Judge Caroline Wall dismissed the case Friday.
“We were forced to argue this case beyond what is required by Oklahoma standards, which is certainly a well-known circumstance when black Americans ask the US justice system to work for them. And now Judge Wall has sentenced us to languish on Oklahoma’s appeals,” the three survivors said in a statement read by attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons at a Monday news conference.
“But we will not go quietly. We will keep fighting until our last breath.”
“Like so many Black Americans, we carry the weight of intergenerational racial trauma day in and day out,” the statement added. “The dismissal of this case is just one more example of how America’s – and Tulsa’s in particular – legacy of racial harm, racial misery is disproportionately and unjustly borne by black communities.
“We will not rest until there is justice for Greenwood.”
At the press conference, Solomon-Simmons said they learned of the judge’s decision Friday night, calling it an unexpected and “hurtful, difficult blow.”
“They have waited 102 years to get justice and reparations for themselves, their families and our community here in Tulsa. And when I got the call… I couldn’t believe it. We were completely overwhelmed,” Solomon-Simmons told CNN Monday night, adding that it was painful to have to tell his clients that the case had been dismissed.
Part of the reason they were surprised by the decision, the lawyer said, was because the same judge who dismissed the case last year had ruled that the lawsuit could go forward, Solomon-Simmons said in the news conference. The lawyers have yet to see the judge’s written order on Friday, he said.
“We are moving forward with an appeal of this case to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma,” the attorney said, adding that they are also calling on the federal government to investigate the massacre.
Solomon-Simmons told CNN the judge’s decision “is completely against the law.”
“We think the law is very clear. No one disputes that the massacre took place. No one disputes that my clients suffered a great loss. No one disputes that their property burned down. They just say, ‘We don’t care,'” Solomon-Simmons said.
When CNN reached out, the city of Tulsa said it “does not comment on pending litigation.”
What the lawsuit argued
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued that the harm done during the massacre was a “public nuisance” and sought help to “recover for unjust enrichment” others obtained through the “exploitation of the massacre”.
Cornell’s Legal Information Institute defines public nuisance as when a person or entity “unreasonably infringes upon a right common to the general public.”
“Our public nuisance law here in Oklahoma is much more specific and relevant to our particular issue,” Solomon-Simmons told CNN. “It deals with whether something interferes with, destroys, or commits a crime by doing so a person’s right to property, the use of his property, or the use of it. The carnage of the Tulsa race fits that definition 100%.
But the City of Tulsa asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing that “simply being connected to a historic event does not give an individual unlimited rights to seek compensation for a project related in any way to that historic event.”
When violence erupted in the Greenwood neighborhood on the first day of June 1921, 35 city blocks were burned down and hundreds of homes destroyed in just 24 hours. Historians believe that as many as 300 people may have been killed, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. Thousands became homeless.
Oklahoma State Representative Regina Goodwin, whose great-grandfather was a well-known Greenwood businessman at the time of the massacre, also spoke at Monday’s news conference.
“It is the court that has the key and the cage of justice and we have waited 102 years for them to open it. How crazy is that?” said Goodwin. “And then we have to think about all the people and what they’ve lost, lives lost, people killed.”
“This generational injustice, yesterday, today and tomorrow, will be answered by generational justice. We are not going anywhere,” the legislator added.
CNN’s Omar Jimenez and Rebekah Riess contributed to this report.
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