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OK Supreme Court hears arguments on Tulsa Race Massacre case

Posted at 4:55 PM, Apr 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-02 20:43:40-04

TULSA, Okla. — For the two remaining survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the April 2 Oklahoma Supreme Court hearing could be their final time in the courtroom.

Tulsa Race Massacre Survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle first sued the city four years ago. In 2021, two other survivors, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis, who passed away last year, joined the suit.

Race Massacre survivors

They want the Justices to overturn the District Court’s dismissal and give them their day in court. The defendants want the case to be finished.

“Justice is the restoration of everything that was taken from you,” said Egunwale Amusan.

He’s a descendant of survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. He’s also studied the history of the horrors that happened in Greenwood 103 years ago.

What happened in the Tulsa Race Massacre?

In 1921, Tulsa’s Greenwood District – also known as “Black Wall Street” – was one of the most affluent black communities in the United States. Yet during the evening of May 31 and the early-morning hours of June 1, 1921, Tulsa exploded. Enraged by rumors that a black youth had sexually assaulted a white girl, a mob of several thousand white Tulsans orchestrated a violent attack on the Greenwood District.

All told, in approximately twelve hours of white mob violence, the thirty-five square blocks that constituted the district – more than a dozen churches, five hotels, thirty-one restaurants, four drugstores, eight doctors’ offices, two dozen grocery stores, a public library, and more than a thousand homes – lay in ruin. It is estimated that as many as three hundred people, mostly black, lost their lives in the attack on the Greenwood District. This event – one of the deadliest acts of antiblack violence in U.S. history – is remembered as the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Source OU

“What does it look like to have one city,” said Amusan. “What does that look like? We don’t know because you can see the disparity. You can see the nuisance that has been caused over and over.”

Amusan was in the courtroom on April 2 as attorneys for the two remaining survivors asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to overturn the District Court’s dismissal of their public nuisance case.

“How can that be in the United States of America that this happened to people, people who are still living, and no court has ever heard a trial about it,” said Randall Adams. “I think that’s just a real abomination.”

Randall Adams is one of the attorneys working on the case. He said since it was first filed in 2020, there hasn’t been much forward movement.

“Most of the case so far has been in this motion to dismiss limbo,” said Adams.

In Spring 2021, the defendants, including the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County Board of Commissioners, Tulsa Regional Chamber, and Tulsa County Sheriff, filed a motion to dismiss the case. The survivors say they are the entities responsible for an ongoing public nuisance.

“Alleging that the massacre caused and continues to cause a public nuisance that affects the Greenwood neighborhood and black Tulsa’s generally,” said Adams.

After two years of back-and-forth with motions to dismiss the case and amended filings, District Court Judge Caroline Wall dismissed the case in July 2023, saying the survivors “fail to state a justiciable public nuisance claim under Oklahoma law” and “fail to allege a legally cognizable abatement remedy.”

Greenwood Community Reacts to Lawsuit Dismissal

“The thing about Oklahoma law is that we aren’t required to state the remedy at the time we file the complaint because the whole idea is you have to have a trial to determine the scope of the nuisance,” said Adams. "Our clients just want their day in court like anyone else, and we deserve a trial on the merits here. The courts shouldn’t decide before any evidence has been taken, before any discovery has happened that our clients don’t have a case.”

After appealing to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Justices agreed to hear oral arguments. Descendants say those arguments are necessary for justice.

“That’s what it means to be a descendant,” said Amusan. “You work effortlessly to make sure that no other generation has to carry that baton.”

For about 90 minutes, the nine justices heard from attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, representing the two survivors.

They also heard from attorneys for the City of Tulsa, county commissioners, the Tulsa County Sheriff, the Oklahoma Military Department, and the Tulsa Regional Chamber.

Solomon-Simmons argued they should be allowed to move forward with the case, collect evidence and put on a trial. Last year, when district court judge Caroline Wall dismissed the case, she said they failed to provide a remedy.

Solomon-Simmons argued they're not required to do that at this stage. He's hoping the justices agree.

“We hope to get a decision from this court soon, and the next time you hear from us, we’ll be back in Judge Wall’s courtroom getting forward with discovery," he said.

The defendants in this case said the District Court properly dismissed the public nuisance claims.

During the Oklahoma Military Department's arguments, Justice Edmonson asked if the attorney was as confused as he was as to why the lower court dismissed the case.

The justices were very active during arguments, asking questions of each side.

2 News will keep you updated as soon as a decision is made.

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