Black church, riot survivor sue Tulsa for reparations over 1921 race massacre

Tulsa Race Massacre
An image from the Tulsa Race Riot, which occurred May 31 - June 1, 1921. |

A group that includes a predominantly African American church has filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma seeking reparations for survivors of a 1921 race massacre and their descendants.

Filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court, the complaint seeks “to remedy the ongoing nuisance” caused by the race riot that took place over 99 years ago on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in the city’s Greenwood district. 

Plaintiffs include 105-year-old survivor of the riot Lessie Benningfield Randle, the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church of Tulsa as well as several residents and descendants of victims of the massacre. 

The complaint not only describes details of the riot and its damages but also documents subsequent actions that harmed the local African American community.  

“Defendants’ unlawful acts and omissions in the years and decades following the Massacre blighted the Greenwood neighborhood, endangering the health and safety of the Greenwood community,” the lawsuit argues

“Defendants’ interference with investment in the Greenwood and North Tulsa community and neighborhood, which began after the Massacre, continues to this day.”

Defendants named in the complaint include the City of Tulsa, the Tulsa Regional Chamber, the Tulsa Development Authority, the Tulsa Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners, Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado and the Oklahoma Military Department.

In its prayer for relief, the complaint seeks to have reparations funds go to a scholarship fund for the descendants of the massacre victims, compensation for the two confirmed survivors and the funding of programs to benefit the modern Greenwood community.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said at a press conference held Tuesday that this was a “truly historic” lawsuit seeking “justice for Greenwood.”

“This is a claim for public nuisance. This is a claim for unjust enrichment. You stole things. You took things, you have things that do not belong to you to this date and the people should get it back,” said Solomon-Simmons, as reported by local media outlet KTUL.

On May 31, 1921, a mob of whites stormed the black Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, which included a major business district known as Black Wall Street.

For about 18 hours, clashes occurred in Greenwood, with more than 1,200 houses destroyed and hundreds looted. 

The official death toll was 36 people, most of whom were black.

According to History, the Tulsa Race Massacre was “one of the deadliest riots in U.S. history, behind only the New York Draft Riots of 1863, which killed at least 119 people.”

“In the years to come, as Black Tulsans worked to rebuild their ruined homes and businesses, segregation in the city only increased, and Oklahoma’s newly established branch of the KKK grew in strength,” they added.

“A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 36 dead, 26 Black and 10 white. However, historians estimate the death toll may have been as high as 300.”

The Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa is the only standing black-owned structure from the Black Wall Street-era and the “only edifice that remains” from the massacre.

The church was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in August 2018, according to the church’s website.  

The church’s pastor, Rev. Robert Turner is a millennial who is “passionate about his calling to serve this ‘present age.’”

“It’s so much more than a tourist site — it’s a crime scene,” Turner argued, according to The New York Times. “Until Tulsa does right by Greenwood, this district will forever be a crime scene."

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