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1921 Massacre survivors want state case reheard, call on Biden to launch federal probe

Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons at a press conference at the Greenwood Cultural Center on July 2, 2024.
Ben Abrams
Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons at a press conference at the Greenwood Cultural Center on July 2, 2024.

After the dismissal of their case, attorneys representing survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Fletcher want another chance in front of the state’s justices.

The last two survivors of the 1921 Race Massacre are hoping to go back to the state’s highest court.

At a press conference Tuesday, attorneys with the nonprofit Justice for Greenwood announced they filed a petition for rehearing to get their public nuisance case back to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

The state’s highest court affirmed the dismissal of the survivors' lawsuit last month, which sought damages from the city of Tulsa and other entities for the lasting effects around the destruction of Black Wall Street. As many as 300 people died and more than 1,200 buildings were destroyed in the attack fueled by claims that a Black man raped a white woman.

In addition to the petition, lead attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons made an emotional plea to the Biden administration to open a federal investigation.

“Now that we have been failed by the courts,” he said, “now that we’ve been failed by the Congress, we’re calling upon President Biden to fulfill his promise to these survivors, to this community and to Black people throughout this nation.”

Solomon-Simmons said he wants an investigation under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which directs federal authorities to reopen cold cases involving acts of racial violence.

“We have been begging them to do this for years. We’ve had multiple meetings, multiple Zoom meetings, we went in-person, we’ve had multiple letters,” he said.

The survivors’ attorneys accused the Oklahoma Supreme Court of “moving the goalposts” in their decision not to send their case back to Tulsa County District Court for a trial.

Eric Miller, a California-based law professor assisting the survivors’ legal team, said the court “re-wrote its own public nuisance statute to prevent the last two living survivors [from] getting a hearing on the merits.”

“No one disputes the facts,” Solomon-Simmons said. “[The justices] don’t dispute that the massacre happened, they don’t dispute that there’s harm, they just say we don’t fit within the law, and we disagree.”

One of the last two survivors, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 109, attended Tuesday’s press conference with her granddaughter.

She and fellow survivor, Viola Fletcher, 110, are the last two living survivors of the massacre after Fletcher’s younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, died in October at 102.

Ben Abrams is a news reporter and All Things Considered host for KWGS.
Check out all of Ben's links and contact info here.