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Only two survivors of the Tulsa Massacre remain. They want reparations

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than a century after one of the deadliest acts of racial violence in the U.S., there are still two remaining survivors, and they want reparations. Max Bryan with member station KWGS in Tulsa, Okla., reports on the lawsuit around the Tulsa Race Massacre.

MAX BRYAN, BYLINE: At the beginning of the 20th century, Tulsa, Okla., was known to have arguably the most affluent Black neighborhood in the country.

TIFFANY CRUTCHER: In all of America - but for Black America, it was the American dream for us.

BRYAN: That's Tiffany Crutcher, who runs the Terence Crutcher Foundation in Tulsa. She's talking about the neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. It was home to a hospital, a public library, businesses, schools and churches. All of this was destroyed in 1921 during the Tulsa Race Massacre. A white mob killed as many as 300 people and destroyed the area after a local paper printed an unconfirmed rumor that a young Black man assaulted a young white woman. Some of the mob were members of local law enforcement. Viola Fletcher was a child living on Greenwood Avenue at the time.

VIOLA FLETCHER: Greenwood had given me the chance to make - truly make it in this country. Within a few hours, all of that was gone.

BRYAN: Fletcher is one of the last known remaining survivors of the massacre. The other is Lessie Benningfield Randle.

LESSIE BENNINGFIELD RANDLE: I remember running outside of our house. I just passed dead bodies. It wasn't a pretty sight. I still see it today in my mind, a hundred years later.

BRYAN: For the last four years, Fletcher and Randle, who are now well over 100 years old, have sued the city of Tulsa, the Tulsa County Sheriff and other agencies for reparations for the massacre. Their case largely hinges on the argument that it created a public nuisance that lasts to this day. Attorney Keith Wilkes represents the sheriff's office. He says the ongoing public nuisance argument does not hold because the neighborhood was rebuilt after the massacre.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEITH WILKES: For the men and women who survived and stayed, the end of the massacre was also the beginning of another story.

BRYAN: But the survivors' legal team argues that because the massacre was labeled a riot, the city and insurance companies didn't have to reimburse anyone and that racial disparities in Tulsa persist to this day. Attorney Eric Miller says the neighborhood was never the same after the massacre.

ERIC MILLER: Eight thousand people that lived in Greenwood - 3,000 fled, never to return again. Some of them were murdered, others too afraid to live there.

BRYAN: The lawsuit was dismissed in Tulsa County court last summer. In October, survivor and former plaintiff Hughes Van Ellis died. A few weeks later, lead attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons filed an appeal of the dismissal with the state Supreme Court. He says they want a trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: We believe we can prove all the claims that we put in our petition. We just have not had the opportunity yet.

BRYAN: Crutcher, who has supported the legal team's efforts, says she's seen hope in the survivors and attorneys throughout this process, including when they presented arguments last week.

CRUTCHER: We're praying right now. We're in good spirits. We're optimistic. And we do hope that the justices will follow the law and ensure that every Oklahoman - every Oklahoma citizen - has a right to plead their case in court.

BRYAN: The survivors and their lawyers now wait to see if the state Supreme Court grants them a trial.

For NPR News, I'm Max Bryan in Tulsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Max Bryan
[Copyright 2024 Public Radio Tulsa]
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