Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors Lawsuit Moving Forward

Advocates of the three survivors of the 1921 Tulsa massacre said on Tuesday (May 3) they were pleased a lawsuit seeking reparations for the death and destruction was able to proceed after a ruling by a judge in Oklahoma on Monday (May 2).

The massacre saw a white mob murder scores of Black people and raze much of their north Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood.

Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall rejected motions by the defendants, which include the city of Tulsa, to dismiss the case. The next legal steps were unclear.

But some satisfaction is already being felt.

“We are very pleased that this case is going forward,” one of the victim’s advocates, Michael Swartz, a partner and co-chair of the litigation group of Schulte, Roth Sabel. “This will represent the first time that descendants of the [Tulsa race] massacre, victims of the massacre, anything having to do with the massacre will have an opportunity to prove their case in court.”

The victims’ advocates recounted the reaction of one of their clients, 101-year-old Hughes Van Ellis, known as, “Uncle Red.”

“He broke down in tears immediately,” said Sara Solfanelli, another advocate from the Schulte firm.

The lawsuit seeks financial and other reparations, including a 99-year tax holiday for Tulsa residents who are descendants of victims of the massacre in Greenwood. It is estimated that as many as 300 people, most of them Black, died.

Greenwood “was a robust, vibrant community. It had a Black-owned hotel. It had a first-rate hospital. It had merchants all over the place,” said Swartz of the area “known as Black Wall Street. And so the relief we’re asking for is to have all that restored.”

The violence erupted after a white woman told police that a Black man had grabbed her arm in an elevator in a downtown Tulsa commercial building on May 30, 1921, according to an account by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The following day, police arrested the man, whom the Tulsa Tribune reported had tried to assault the woman. Whites surrounded the courthouse, demanding the man be handed over.

World War One veterans were among Black men who went to the courthouse to face the mob. A white man tried to disarm a Black veteran and a shot rang out, touching off further violence.

White people looted and burned buildings and dragged Black people from their beds and beat them, according to historical accounts.

Whites were deputized by authorities and instructed to shoot Blacks.

No one was ever charged in the violence.

Deep economic and health disparities remain between the Black community, who still live for the most part in north Tulsa, and white people.

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