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President And National Press Gone, Advocates Continue Push For Massacre Reparations

Chris Polansky
Damario Solomon-Simmons, lead attorney for the three known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in their suit for restitution from the city, state and other entities, addresses reporters on Wednesday at the Greenwood Cultural Center.

With the national spotlight off Tulsa following substantial media coverage of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre centennial anniversary and President Joe Biden's visit to Greenwood to commemorate it, advocates for reparations for survivors and descendants say they aren't going anywhere.

"The hard work continues," said Damario Solomon-Simmons, lead attorney for Hughes Van Ellis, 100; Lessie Benningfield "Mother" Randle, 106; and Viola "Mother" Fletcher, 107, in their lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma, city of Tulsa and other entities for financial compensation for the racist attack they survived as children. 

"We are excited that the president was here, that he made some statements, but we all know that there's a lot of work to be done and we need specifics," Solomon-Simmons said.

At an update on their case at the Greenwood Cultural Center Wednesday, less than 24 hours following Biden's speech there, Solomon-Simmons and other members of the legal team said they feel confident.

"Right here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the defendants in this litigation, which include the city of Tulsa and its chamber of commerce but also the state of Oklahoma have... treated the people of Greenwood and north Tulsa, along with the descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre, as second-class citizens not worthy of respect or rights," said co-counsel Eric Miller, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Attorney McKenzie Haynes of international law firm Schulte, Roth and Zabel, which has taken on the case pro bono, explained state law appears to be on the survivors' side.

"We are blessed to be in Tulsa, to be in Oklahoma, where there is a unique public nuisance statute," Haynes said. 

Haynes recounted that in its successful litigation against pharmaceutical companies, the state argued that the companies had created a public nuisance through their actions, causing and worsening an opioid crisis.

"We plan to use, and we have used in our responses, the exact methodology and principles the state used in their case," Haynes said. 

"On May 31, 1921, the white mobs came in and they murdered, the destroyed, they killed, they looted, they rioted, and a public nuisance was created. After that moment, it continued and continued and continues to this day," Haynes said. "We believe that the massacre ignited the nuisance that exists today in Tulsa, specifically in north Tulsa, and all of the policies and practices that have been implemented by the defendants have elevated and exacerbated the public nuisance."

Solomon-Simmons noted the Oklahoma National Guard's apology this week for the role they played in the massacre a century ago.

"Just in September of 2020, when we filed our case, the National Guard came out and said, 'Hey, we didn't have anything to do with it, if it wasn't for us it would have been worse,'" Solomon-Simmons said. 

"We want to acknowledge the National Guard for saying that, and we also put that in their brief so the judge knows that they admitted that," he said.

Michael Swartz, a partner at Schulte, Roth and Zabel, said the team expects to be able to conduct discovery -- including the depositions of Gov. Kevin Stitt and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum.

"They are the acting authorities for those entities, absolutely. We anticipate getting discovery from the institutions themselves... a whole lot of people will be sitting down for depositions," Swartz said.

Haynes said, among other remedies, they are seeking the creation of a victims' compensation fund and a tax exemption for those negatively affected by the massacre.

"We want the Black Tulsans who live and endure the continuing harm to not have to pay any more state and local taxes, because they have been denied justice for so long, their economic justice has been taken from them, and we believe it is only fair to not have them have to spend their resources to give it back to the state or the city or the county that has taken so much from them," Haynes said.

Solomon-Simmons recounted the meeting between Biden, Fletcher, Randle and Van Ellis.

"They told the president we need policies, specifically for Greenwood and Black people," Solomon-Simmons said. "Not small businesses, not disadvantaged businesses, not people of color, not Black and brown communities -- Black people in Tulsa who have suffered."

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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