On Tuesday, a group of Oklahomans sued the city of Tulsa and a host of other defendants for their role in the 1921 Tulsa massacre, during which a white mob destroyed and looted the vibrant Black neighborhood of Greenwood and killed what some have estimated to be hundreds of residents. The plaintiffs, who include one of the few remaining survivors of the massacre, 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle, argue that the impacts of that death and destruction have continued into the present and have been exacerbated by willful disinvestment and neglect. They are calling for the creation of a victim’s compensation fund, as well as a host of other initiatives to benefit Black Tulsans. Sounds like the least that local government officials should do, frankly!
As Damario Solomon Simmons, the attorney for the plaintiffs, noted in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, the idea of paying reparations to descendants and survivors is nothing new—almost two decades ago, he wrote, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission “recommended that survivors, descendants and the community of Greenwood be paid cash in restitution.” But the city of Tulsa has fought the idea every step of the way, and its current mayor, G.T. Bynum, has dismissed the idea of cash compensation as divisive, preferring instead to focus on trickle-down economic development. Instead, as the city approaches the centennial of the massacre, it’s planning to launch a history center and museum and hold a series of educational events, with no initiatives that would materially benefit survivors and relatives. As the lawsuit acerbically notes, “The latest version of the City’s business plan is to profit off the Massacre by turning it into a tourism attraction and primarily White-owned commercial hub.”
But, Simmons wrote in his op-ed, “It’s time for Tulsa officials do the right thing for racial justice and support reparations for victims like Mother Randle and their descendants.”
Randle’s story is particularly illuminating. According to the lawsuit, her home was destroyed by white rioters in 1921, and she “experiences flashbacks of Black bodies that were stacked up on the street as her neighborhood was burning.” She stayed in Tulsa, living in what Simmons described as a “disintegrating structure” until earlier this year, when her home was fixed up. The help didn’t come from the city or any other agency, but through the fundraising efforts of local Black residents.