Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors Clear Legal Hurdle to Land in State Supreme Court

Judges will assess appeal for lawsuit seeking reparations for events that destroyed Black Wall Street in 1921

(Bloomberg) — The Oklahoma Supreme Court will review an appeal from survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre who are seeking reparations for losses stemming from the attack on what was known as Black Wall Street.

Justices will decide whether the case should be sent back to the district court after it was dismissed last month, according to a Tuesday statement from the plaintiffs’ lawyers. 

The plaintiffs—Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, Viola Fletcher, 109 and Hughes Van Ellis Sr., 102 as well as descendants of other survivors—are seeking restitution for the attack by a White mob on the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, which was home to a thriving Black community and Black-owned businesses. 

“Given the history and our clients’ ages we were incredibly heartened by the swiftness with which the Oklahoma Supreme Court moved,” said Sara Solfanelli, special counsel for pro bono initiatives at Schulte Roth & Zabel, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs. “And our clients, the plaintiffs, are certainly hopeful and inspired that they get to see this move forward quickly.”

Read more:  Tulsa Massacre Survivors to Appeal Dismissal of Reparations Lawsuit

The plaintiffs first filed the lawsuit in 2020 on the grounds that the city of Tulsa and other defendants violated local public nuisance laws in the events that left hundreds of Black Tulsans killed and thousands more displaced. Under Oklahoma law, a public nuisance is an act or omission that affects an entire community or neighborhood. Citing a public nuisance in a lawsuit is a tactic used by other cities and states to seek damages from opioid pharmaceutical companies.

An amended version of the Tulsa suit was filed in 2021, and again last September. Judge Caroline Wall, a Tulsa county district court judge, in July dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, which means the same claim can’t be refiled in that court. 

The state said the plaintiffs’ “allegations are premised on conflicting historical facts from over 100 years ago,” according to court papers submitted Monday by Assistant Attorney General Kevin McClure.

A spokesperson for the City of Tulsa said the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Requests for comment from representatives for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office weren’t returned.

The estimated economic loss of the homes and additional assets in the assault would amount to more than $200 million in today’s dollars, according to a 2018 article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology.

(Updates with Tulsa city spokesperson comment in eighth paragraph.)

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