Tulsa race massacre survivors condemn dismissal of reparations case and urge Biden to act

<span>Lessie Benningfield Randle at the Oklahoma capitol on 5 October 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Doug Hoke/AP</span>
Lessie Benningfield Randle at the Oklahoma capitol on 5 October 2023.Photograph: Doug Hoke/AP

Tulsa race massacre survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle, 109, made her first public appearance since the Oklahoma supreme court dismissed her historic lawsuit last month. Randle, along with fellow survivor Viola Fletcher, 110, had sought restitution for the survivors and descendants of the 1921 massacre, in which an estimated 300 Black Tulsans were killed, thousands were displaced, and Greenwood, the thriving district once known as “Black Wall Street”, was decimated in an act of racist violence.

A judgment in Randle and Fletcher’s favor would have been the first ruling to address the longstanding damage the massacre had on Tulsa’s Black community. But the court said that while the plaintiffs’ grievances were legitimate, the suit did not fall within the scope of the state’s public nuisance statute.

Randle and Fletcher’s statement on Tuesday, recited by a litigation associate on their behalf, read: “We are deeply saddened that we may not live long enough to see the state of Oklahoma or the United States of America honestly comfort and right the wrongs of one of the darkest days in American history. At 109 and 110 years old, we are elderly and we know that we are living on borrowed time … Oklahoma and the United States of America have failed its Black citizens. This failure is profound, systemic and marred by lip service and clever platitudes.”

The statement described how the two survivors witnessed the atrocities of the massacre, including white pilots flying over the neighborhood and dropping dynamite into the streets, an act considered to be one of the first aerial bombardments of a US city.

No one was persecuted for the crimes, the city of Tulsa never paid victims reparations or otherwise redressed the massacre and insurance payments were unpaid or insignificant. The Black Tulsans who survived either fled or remained in Oklahoma and lived in fear.

Multiple speakers at the press conference cited Joe Biden’s meeting in 2021, when he met with Randle, Fletcher, Fletcher’s younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, who died last year at 102, and other descendants.

“He sat down with my clients. He promised them that he would see that they get justice,” Damario Solomon-Simmons, the lead attorney for the Tulsa survivors, said. “Then he went to the next room and had a robust speech where he told the nation that he stood with the survivors and descendants of the Tulsa race massacre. But now that we have been failed by the courts, now that we have been failed by the Congress, we are calling upon President Biden to fulfill his promise to these survivors, to this community and for Black people across the nation.”

The survivors have called for the president and the Department of Justice to investigate the Tulsa race massacre. With the Oklahoma supreme court’s decision, those calls have been amplified. In the meantime, the survivors’ counsel have filed a petition for a rehearing. During the press conference, they highlighted inconsistencies and alleged issues with the supreme court’s decision.

“This is the American reality, no matter how much politicians seek to instill policies that hide our history, this is our collective truth,” Randle’s statement read. “It seems that the only justice permitted for Black Americans are sympathetic words and supposed promises that white Americans, our government and our justice system will do better. But the lip service continues and tangible justice is denied.”

The survivors promised to “continue to shine a light on the darkest days in American history”, while repeating the call for the DoJ to investigate Tulsa. The lawsuit included the survivors’ claim of the city’s unjust enrichment: there are multiple Black Wall Street tours and other cultural tours and events that seek to show tourists about the Tulsa race massacre, but do not benefit the survivors in any way.

Tiffany Crutcher, whose great-grandmother survived the massacre, also spoke, citing Biden’s speech to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

“‘Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so egregious they can’t be buried no matter how hard people try,’” Crutcher said, quoting Biden’s words.

“I agree 100% with President Biden,” she continued. “We must face it and we must give respect to our survivors, the descendants and this community by demanding that the Department of Justice immediately investigate what happened here on this sacred ground over 100 years ago. This community is watching, this nation is watching, history is watching and the very survivors who are depicted on these walls are calling out for peace, and this administration has the power to help them rest in peace.”