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101-year-old race massacre survivor to be deposed for lawsuit

Hughes Van Ellis at a 2021 soil collection collection ceremony memorializing 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims
Matt Trotter
Hughes Van Ellis at a 2021 soil collection collection ceremony memorializing 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims

Attorneys for the three known 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors were back in court Tuesday for a hearing on requests from the city and other entities to dismiss a lawsuit seeking compensation from the government for participating in the massacre.

Judge Caroline Wall said Damario Solomon-Simmons, lead attorney for the survivors, should respond to the city of Tulsa’s latest motion to dismiss by Nov. 18.

Solomon-Simmons protested, calling the motion redundant and “completely a waste of judicial resources.” He said the points raised in the filing were already addressed and questioned whether a written response was necessary.

“I can’t give you legal advice,” said Wall.

In the filings, attorneys for the city and state argue a second amended petition from the survivors violates an Aug. 3 order from Wall relating to the “ongoing” nature of the claimed public nuisance. It also raises questions about unjust enrichment of the city from the use of the names and likenesses of the three survivors: Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, Viola Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, 101.

Wall said she wouldn't comment on the merits of the defense's claims until Solomon-Simmons filed a response.

Solomon-Simmons asked Wall about discovery during the hearing, questioning whether or not the process where parties in a lawsuit exchange information on evidence and witnesses could proceed. Wall said Solomon-Simmons would need to confer privately with the city’s lawyers and file an application, but that the deposition of Van Ellis could go forward.

“We anticipate getting his deposition very soon, hopefully within the next 30 days. We’re also going to be moving forward with discovery, written discovery, subpoenas, and the entire thing we would do in a case of this magnitude,” said Solomon-Simmons.

Last year, an attorney working with Solomon-Simmons said the team would pursue depositions from Gov. Kevin Stitt and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum.

Randle, Fletcher, and Van Ellis are suing the city of Tulsa, Tulsa Regional Chamber, Tulsa County, the Tulsa sheriff, and the Oklahoma Military Department for their roles in the massacre that left as many as 300 Black Tulsans dead.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.