Survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre filed a lawsuit for reparations and the rebuilding of the Greenwood District. Caroline Wall, an Oklahoma judge, dismissed it and don’t you ever forget it.
The court ruled that Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis, the defendants and the three remaining survivors, had not proven “individualized injury.” But they had survived the days-long assault by a mob of European Americans that left an estimated 300 African Americans dead.
They were alive and present for the suffering. This is the argued requirement during discussions of reparations for slavery in America.
“Black Wall Street” was also burned to the ground and the community lost more than 1,000 homes, more than 50 businesses, a hospital and a library.
This left “some 35-40 square blocks of Greenwood’s residential area in smoking ruins, and nearly 9,000 African Americans homeless. Virtually every structure in the Greenwood commercial district was destroyed, and property damage was estimated at nearly $1.5 million,” H.B. Johnson wrote in Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma.
Today, it would mean a loss of almost $17 million. The community would never recover.
The survivors argued that the county, the city and the state were at fault. Adjutant Gen. Michael Thompson, the first African American commander of the Oklahoma National Guard, admitted that troops did not step in to protect the community.
“We can debate what the guard did 100 years ago, but there’s no room for debate for what the guard did not do. And what the guard didn’t do is protect this community,” Thompson said.
The city’s mayor, G.T. Bynum, apologized in 2021 for the city’s “failure” and supported a “discussion” on reparations.
“Tulsa’s city government failed to protect Black Tulsans from murder and arson on the night of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and from discrimination in subsequent decades. As the Mayor of Tulsa, I apologize for the city government’s failure to protect our community in 1921 and to do right by the victims of the Race Massacre in its aftermath,” he said. “While no municipal elected official in Tulsa today was alive in 1921, we are the stewards of the same government and an apology for those failures is ours to deliver.”
But there are survivors of one of the deadliest attacks in United States history, and while they can appeal the decision, as it stands, Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis will receive nothing.
“We the scapegoat in a land built/ from death. no longitude or latitude disproves/ the truth of founding fathers’ sacred oath: we hold these truths like dark snuff in our jaw,/ Black oppression’s not happenstance; it’s law,” Ashley M. Jones, Alabama’s first African American poet laureate and author of Reparations Now, wrote in a poem titled, “Are Y’all Really From Alabama?”
This lawlessness is law. The residents of “Little Africa” survived the horrors of chattel slavery only to be faced with domestic terrorism for three days without government intervention or relief.
The residents only recently started to talk about it. No marker or memorial to help the city remember its racist past. No commission to study its effects for more than 75 years. No criminal charges for the European Americans who murdered their neighbors and looted, burned and destroyed their community.
On the 100th anniversary of the race massacre, my colleagues and I traveled to Tulsa. There were worship services that featured the voices of prominent pastors and civil rights leaders.
There was a candlelight vigil that marked the day the violence began. The following day, there were concerts, the selling of t-shirts, buttons and local treats.
We even traveled to Oaklawn Cemetery where it was suspected that a few hundred bodies had been buried. All the bodies of the African Americans who were murdered during the race massacre have not been recovered or accounted for. The Oklahoma Archeological Survey is still digging and today can’t give you or me an exact number.
But the United States federal government came up with a number and compensated slave owners through the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 for their “loss of property.” The slave owners received up to $300 for every enslaved person who was freed.
Slave owners received reparations in exchange for the abolition of slavery in the district, but Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis didn’t.
“The country in which reparations actually happen is a very different one than the one we live in,” Ta-Nehisi Coates. What a time to be alive, to live to see this.
Their attorney called for “justice in their lifetime.” They likely won’t see it, and I will never forget it.