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State Supreme Court sides with Tulsa in 1921 Race Massacre lawsuit

Posted at 12:14 PM, Jun 12, 2024

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma State Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit seeking damages from the City of Tulsa for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three Race Massacre survivors in 2020.

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.”

In April, the court began hearing oral arguments from the plaintiffs.

Oklahoma Supreme Court to hear oral arguments for Race Massacre Case

The court ruled 8-1 to uphold that dismissal on June 12.

The decision said, though the survivors' grievances are legitimate, they don't fall within the scope of Oklahoma's public nuisance statute.

"If they were going to do reparations the easy way, it would have already been done.”

2 News spoke to Willie Sells, who has worked on historic Greenwood Ave. for four decades.

Sells said he had been praying for a better outcome for the survivors.

"Those people that were here suffered a terrible loss, and I think it’s effected the city down through the years," said Sells. "“I couldn’t say I was surprised, but disappointed. I was hopeful that they would at least figure out a way to give reparations to the survivors."

The survivors' legal team said this about the decision:

Our clients, Viola “Mother” Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle, will file a petition for rehearing with the Oklahoma Supreme Court asking the Court to reconsider its decision.

The destruction of forty-square blocks of property on the night of May 31, 1921 through murder and arson clearly meets the definition of a public nuisance under Oklahoma law. Faithful application of the law compels the conclusion that Mother Randle and Mother Fletcher have stated a claim for relief. They are entitled to a trial. Yet the Court held that Mother Randle and Mother Fletcher have asked the Court to decide a “political” question that is beyond the purview of the Court.

Incredibly, during the extensive oral argument the Supreme Court held on the appeal, not a single member of the nine-member Court asked a question about this political question theory. It is not a political question simply because the suit seeks to remedy wrongful acts perpetrated by a white mob against Black people – the court system is the very place where such harms are meant to be remedied.

In 103 years since the Massacre, no court has held a trial addressing the Massacre and no individual or entity has been held accountable for it. As justice is delayed once again in the Oklahoma court system, we call upon the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation into the Massacre under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007.

The Massacre happened 103 years ago, but it remains a vivid memory of Mother Randle and Mother Fletcher who as young girls saw their community destroyed in the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. As Mother Fletcher celebrated her 110th birthday last month and Mother Randle will celebrate the same birthday later this year, time is of the essence for this investigation to begin.

City of Tulsa released this statement about the decision:

“The City of Tulsa respects the court’s decision and affirms the significance of the work the City continues to do in the North Tulsa and Greenwood communities. Through economic development and policy projects, the 1921 Graves Investigation, and a renewed community vision for the Kirkpatrick Heights & Greenwood Master Plan, the City remains committed to working with residents and providing resources to support the North Tulsa and Greenwood communities.”

Tulsa State Representative Regina Goodwin released this statement about the decision:

“Despicable decision for the Ok Supreme Court to deny justice to Mrs. Viola Ford Fletcher,110 , Mrs. Lessie Benningfield Randle,109, the Hughes Van Ellis family and all descendants who have sought justice for the last 103 years. All who perpetuate cruel injustice will answer to God.”

We asked Sells if he had anything to say to the Randle or Fletcher if he could.

"I would say ‘God bless you. We appreciate you, our hearts go out for the fact that you had to endure such a trauma at a young age," said Sells. "Now, you're still struggling to see what they would call justification to them and their families, so I would say God Bless you."

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