Oklahoma high court dismisses Tulsa Race Massacre reparations lawsuit

The Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday from remaining survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre who sought reparations after one of the worst single acts of violence against Black people in U.S. history.

Survivors Viola Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle and Hughes Van Ellis initially filed the lawsuit in 2020 against the city of Tulsa, the Tulsa Regional Chamber, the Tulsa County Commissioners, Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado and the Oklahoma Military Department. Van Ellis died last year at 102.

The lawsuit said the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre represented an "ongoing public nuisance," and that in 2016, "the Defendants began enriching themselves by promoting the site of the Massacre as a tourist attraction."

Plaintiffs also said the destruction of what had been America's most prosperous Black business community continues to affect Tulsa.

Tulsa County District Court Judge Caroline Wall dismissed the lawsuit last year, and survivors appealed to the state’s high court.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court affirmed Wall's decision in an 8-1 vote.

“With respect to their public nuisance claim, though Plaintiffs' grievances are legitimate, they do not fall within the scope of our State's public nuisance statute,” Vice Chief Justice Dustin P. Rowe wrote.

The high court also held that the survivors’ claim of unjust enrichment was not sufficiently supported.

Survivor recounts hardship after massacre

The dismissal Wednesday followed a yearslong legal battle between the city and remaining survivors who said the massacre continues to impede their lives.

The lawsuit was brought under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, claiming Black Tulsa residents remain impacted by the attack. It alleged the massacre had rendered the survivors insecure in their lives and property, and "annoyed, injured and endangered the community."

It also alleged the lack of investment in the Greenwood District and other historically and predominantly Black areas of Tulsa after the massacre worsened the damage and suffering.

Survivors contended the city's long history of racial division and tension were rooted in the massacre, which was perpetrated by members of the Tulsa Police Department, Tulsa County Sheriff's Department, the National Guard, and city and county leaders, among others.

Timeline: An illustrated history of the Tulsa Race Massacre

In a 2021 letter to Congress before his death, Van Ellis said he and his family were driven from their home and made refugees within the country.

"My childhood was hard and we didn’t have much," he wrote. "We worried what little we had would be stolen from us. Just like it was stolen in Tulsa."

The two last known living survivors of the race massacre are Van Ellis' sister Viola Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield Randle.

“You may have been taught that when something is stolen from you, you can go to the courts to be made whole – you can go to the courts for justice,” Van Ellis wrote. “This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn’t hear us. The federal courts said we were too late. We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice.”

What was the Tulsa Race Massacre?

In the early 1900s, the 40 blocks to the north of downtown Tulsa boasted 10,000 residents, hundreds of businesses, medical facilities an airport and more. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob descended on Greenwood – the Black section of Tulsa – burning, looting and destroying more than 1,000 homes.

Tulsa police deputized some white men, instructing them to “get a gun and get busy and try to get a (Black person),” according to witness accounts and records at the time.

The true death toll of the massacre may never be known, with the search for unmarked graves continuing more than a century later, but most historians who have studied the event estimate the death toll to be between 75 and 300 people.

Josh Dulaney reports for The Oklahoman and Minnah Arshad reports for USA TODAY. Contributing: Cheyenne Derksen, JaNae Williams, The Oklahoman; Camille Fine, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: OK Supreme Court dismisses lawsuit from Tulsa Race Massacre survivors