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Judge to rule again on whether 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre lawsuit can proceed

Race massacre survivor Viola Fletcher leaves the Tulsa County Courthouse on her 109th birthday with her brother, fellow survivor Hughes Van Ellis (left) on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.
Elizabeth Caldwell
/
KWGS News
Race massacre survivor Viola Fletcher leaves the Tulsa County Courthouse on her 109th birthday with her brother, fellow survivor Hughes Van Ellis (left) on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

An historic Tulsa lawsuit awaits another ruling.

The three known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre were in court Wednesday for a hearing on whether or not their case against the city and state for participating in the massacre can keep moving forward.

Attorney for the survivors Damario Solomon-Simmons said he wished the government would stop trying to get the case dismissed, calling it a delay tactic meant to stall justice for his elderly clients.

“No one lives forever. Our focus is getting them justice before they pass away and it’s over, no more survivors left. We feel really strongly about our case,” said Solomon-Simmons.

Judge Caroline Wall said she would rule on whether or not to dismiss the case within about a week.

The hearing took place on the 109th birthday of Viola Fletcher, who attended with 108-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle and 102-year-old Hughes Van Ellis.

During arguments, John Tucker, attorney for the Tulsa Regional Chamber, said the case should be dismissed because the court doesn’t have jurisdiction to help right the wrongs allegedly caused by the massacre that destroyed about 35 blocks of the neighborhood known as Black Wall Street.

“That’s like telling the court, ‘Here are all the public policy things you can fix,’” said Tucker.

Solomon-Simmons disagreed, linking the present struggles of Greenwood to the violence that left as many as 300 Black Tulsans dead more than 100 years ago.

“You created a public nuisance when you bombed and burnt out 115 buildings,” said Solomon-Simmons.

For instance, Solomon-Simmons said, there’s no hospital in Greenwood today, but one was destroyed in 1921 after a white mob attacked the neighborhood in retribution for a confrontation between a white woman and a Black man.

Along with the chamber, the city of Tulsa, the county, and the state military department are defendants in the suit brought by the survivors.

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.