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Leading Race Massacre Scholar: Reparations A Must

John Hope Franklin National Symposium
Historian Scott Ellsworth gives a presentation on his research on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre at the John Hope Franklin National Symposium on Thursday.

One of the preeminent scholars of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre said Thursday that reparations for survivors and descendants are undeniably necessary.

"The fact of the matter is, without a doubt, the three remaining survivors of the massacre and the descendants of any and all survivors of the massacre deserve some form of financial restitution for what happened to them and their family in 1921," historian Scott Ellsworth said near the end of an address given as part of the John Hope Franklin National Symposium.

"It is not simply a case that people tried to murder them and killed their loved ones and friends, destroyed their homes, destroyed their businesses, and destroyed their futures -- their city government let them down, their state government let them down, the federal government let them down," Ellsworth said.

"In all honesty, the question of reparations is a complicated subject. Anyone who says it isn't is joking, is fooling themselves," Ellsworth said. "But in this case, the massacre is a discrete, finite event. It did not last very long -- less than 16 hours. It's going to be hard, but I think we can identify these people and I think it's the right thing to do."

Ellsworth, the author of two books about the massacre, said one credible estimate found over $600 million in wealth would still be in place among the Greenwood community were it not for the state-sanctioned attack that killed as many as 300 people a century ago.

"That's generations of college tuition. That's generations of house down payments, of seed money for new businesses, health insurance, old-age care -- you just name it. Quality of life was gone. And the reality, of course, is the massacre still casts a dark shadow over our town," Ellsworth said.

Ellsworth said, in his estimation, the best shot survivors and descendants have at reparations is via the federal government, where legislation has been introduced by Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia to provide compensation. Ellsworth said he did not see the state government at any point in the near future or Mayor G.T. Bynum's City Hall choosing to pursue direct reparations, but the compensation paid to Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps during World War Two could serve as a model for massacre descendants and survivors.

Ellsworth, who is white, said it's partly a marketing exercise.

"You're not selling this to people of color, okay? You've got to sell it to white people and get them to buy into it," Ellsworth said, noting the campaign to win compensation for the Japanese-American internment camp prisoners focused on the victims' patriotism and the effect of the imprisonment on mothers.

Despite all having played direct or indirect roles in carrying out the massacre, the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County and the state of Oklahoma have never offered compensation to victims of the 1921 attack, considered possibly the worst single act of racist white-on-Black violence in American history.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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