International Law Firm Joins Tulsa Race Massacre Reparations Lawsuit

Feb 1, 2021

A New York-based international law firm has joined the legal team representing 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and their descendants in their lawsuit for reparations from the city of Tulsa and other parties.

"This is such an important opportunity," said McKenzie Haynes, an associate at the law firm Schulte Roth & Zabel, during a Thursday Facebook Live town hall hosted by Dr. Tiffany Crutcher's Justice for Greenwood Foundation.

"Not just for our law firm, not just for me personally, but it's a really big step for the legal community broadly, especially the big law firms across this country that owe it to Black folks and owe it to the folks in Greenwood to do right and create justice," Haynes said.

"For me as a Black woman in America, as a Black attorney, it is so critical to make change and do right and bring justice where justice is due," she said.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, the Tulsa-based attorney who initially brought the case last year on behalf of massacre survivor Lessie Benningfield "Mother" Randle, 106, and others, gave an overview and update on the case at the town hall.

"This is a case that is for the community, it is for descendants, it is for survivors, it is for everyone who's ever been impacted by the massacre and everything that has happened since then," Solomon-Simmons said.

"We know and understand that the devastation that happened in 1921 didn't stop there. We have emotional trauma, we have land loss, we have continued taking of businesses [and] business opportunities, disparity of policing -- all of that is coming from the massacre," he said. 

The suit alleges that the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, and the Tulsa Regional Chamber, among others, have created a public nuisance via "unlawful acts and omissions" that continues through present day, and have exploited the massacre "for their own economic and political gain."

Solomon-Simmons said the plaintiffs' legal team has identified some of the still-existing insurance companies which denied claims from massacre victims whose homes were destroyed or damaged, and they have taken depositions from Randle and fellow survivor Viola Fletcher, also 106. 

Solomon-Simmons says the suit is at least partially modeled on the state of Oklahoma's successful $572 million public nuisance suit against pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson for their role in the opioid epidemic.

Dreisen Heath, researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of their report, "The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument," endorsed the stances argued in the suit.

"Tulsa city officials promised full restitution post-massacre but instead worked to block financial contributions, including medical help, and prevented rebuilding efforts, even ordering Black Tulsans into poor conditions and concentration camps," Heath said.

"Our report also documents the continual harm of the massacre, the racial violence following the massacre in the form of redlining, urban renewal or urban removal, highway construction that runs through the heart of Greenwood that displaced families, university construction of OSU - Tulsa and Langston University - Tulsa that claim land of the historic district, rezoning of the district boundaries, other discriminatory policies, de facto segregation, police violence, gentrification disguised as economic development and structural racism," Heath said.

"All of these are government actions that have left Black Tulsans, particularly those in North Tulsa, with a lower life expectancy, lower standard of living and fewer opportunities than other Tulsans, particularly those south of the highway," Heath said.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum has over the last year, at press conferences discussing the city's investigation into mass graves from the massacre, repeatedly dodged questions about reparations.

Many of the lawsuit's key players expressed optimism Thursday.

"We can't let the bad guys win," said Crutcher, whose Justice for Greenwood Foundation nonprofit is helping fund the suit. "Greenwood is still burning. This is ground zero. Black Wall Street is a crime scene and we all have to rise up."

"I think that you will see ... that people are really going to start to listen, because when you have a lot of lawyers, particularly from a big law firm like us, people come to the table because they don't want to spend time in court with us," Haynes said.

"We have an opportunity for victory," Solomon-Simmons said. "We have an opportunity to vindicate."