Among the most famous images related to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is a photo of two Black attorneys sitting in a tent among the smoldered ruins of the Greenwood District. The date is June 6, 1921, less than a week after a white mob razed Greenwood, a thriving Oklahoma community known as Black Wall Street. The men, B.C. Franklin and I.H. Spears, are surrounded by salvaged law books and a diligent secretary sitting before a lone typewriter.
Outside the frame lies wholesale carnage: once-proud business enterprises reduced to charred husks and rows of trees stripped of all their foliage. But even before the physical reconstruction of Greenwood could begin, Mr. Franklin and his clients insisted that efforts at legal repair be put into motion. What Mr. Franklin and Mr. Spears knew then — that no one in power in the city, the state or the nation was likely to offer them restitution unprompted — would prove prescient, as would their determination to pursue it themselves.
On July 7, a Tulsa County district judge dismissed a recent lawsuit brought by three living survivors of the 1921 attack: Viola Fletcher, 109; Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108; and Hughes Van Ellis, 102. Their attorneys argued that the City of Tulsa and other government entities were directly involved in the decimation of Greenwood. Police officers deputized members of the white mob, witnesses reported seeing officers taking part in the destruction, and Tulsa’s mayor at the time, T.D. Evans, wrongly blamed a “negro uprising” for the destruction.
Though these incriminating facts are well documented, Judge Caroline Wall ultimately ruled that the court should not engage in the “management of public policy matters” by prescribing specific forms of repair for the Greenwood survivors and their community. The massacre was wrong, Judge Wall and many government officials seem to agree, but no one in particular can be held responsible for it.
In Tulsa, city leaders have over the past 102 years become adept at this sleight of hand — acknowledging the horror of the race massacre while punting responsibility for the moral and economic debt it has wrought. But what these leaders fail to acknowledge is that the institutions they helm played an active role in halting Greenwood’s progress after the massacre. The mob burned Greenwood and the courts fanned the flames when they refused to punish the attackers or offer redress to hundreds of newly destitute Tulsans who believed the law should be on their side.
The injustices began in those days as Greenwood burned outside Mr. Franklin’s tent. More than 70 plaintiffs with ties to the community, some of them represented by Mr. Franklin, filed lawsuits against the City of Tulsa between 1921 and 1923. Plaintiffs charged that the city had failed in its duty to protect citizens. Instead, it had deployed officials to take Greenwood residents to detention camps and allowed their homes to be burned to the ground. Many Greenwood residents listed their destroyed property down to the number: 12 curtains, six pairs of silk socks, one violin. Some individual claims reached well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, adjusted for inflation.
But city attorneys and judges opposed offering restitution at every step. In one suit, Harry L.S. Halley, an assistant attorney for the City of Tulsa, denied that any of the city’s police officers were guilty of wrongdoing, even though a state investigation unfolding around the same time identified specific officers as participants. Mr. Halley, I discovered through my research, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s; so were at least two local judges.
The Klan seized political power across Oklahoma during the era through violence and coercion. It’s no surprise, then, that the Greenwood lawsuits languished in the courts for years as the massacre quietly disappeared from newspaper headlines and local histories. Many of the suits were summarily dismissed on the same day in 1937. But those legal decisions are permanently tainted because of the openly racist context in which they were made.
While the lawsuits were stalling out, other levers of government were being used to conspire against Greenwood. For decades, the neighborhood’s schools were denied funding equal to that of their white counterparts. In the 1930s, Greenwood was deemed by the federal government a financially “hazardous” area for banks to issue loans, making it an early redlined neighborhood. Interstate highway construction destroyed parts of the district in 1967; urban renewal claimed much of the rest in the ensuing years. A justice system that had been largely silent on Greenwood’s property claims after the massacre facilitated eminent domain proceedings that made it possible for the government to seize privately owned land.
In 2003, Greenwood made another major legal push for restitution. More than 100 massacre survivors and their descendants filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Tulsa, the State of Oklahoma and others. The arguments were similar to those of the original suits — the city had failed to protect its citizens from members of the mob and instead had empowered their calculated destruction. But the defendants insisted that the statute of limitations on filing such lawsuits had long expired. A federal judge ultimately agreed, citing the lawsuits filed by Mr. Franklin and others as evidence that Greenwood residents had already had their shot at restitution. In the warped view of the court, those courageous initial efforts to seek justice in the face of obstinate attorneys, at least one of whom was aligned with the Klan, actually undermined later attempts.
The most recent lawsuit was filed in 2020, only a few months after George Floyd’s murder. Damario Solomon-Simmons, a Tulsa native who had served as a law clerk on the legal team for the 2003 suit, helped devise a new approach to reparations by invoking Oklahoma’s obscure public nuisance law. Under the public nuisance framework, a business or government entity can be held liable for actions that endanger the health or safety of a community, so long as the nuisance is ongoing.
Mr. Solomon-Simmons and his legal team began connecting the dots on how Greenwood had been harmed not only by the massacre but also by countless forms of systemic racism afterward: job discrimination, urban renewal, community disinvestment. Their sweeping case mirrored nationwide efforts to extend the discussion of reparations for Black Americans beyond slavery to issues such as redlining and overpolicing.
In California, a state-appointed task force recently released an 1,100-page report outlining how Black Americans in the state had been robbed of wealth and opportunity for generations. The duty of deciding whether to approve any kind of reparations package will fall to the California Legislature. In Tulsa, Judge Wall recommended that the Greenwood survivors follow a similar route, pursuing justice through the legislative or executive branches. But Oklahoma lawmakers have declined to support reparations bills advocated by state legislators in the past. Leaving the matter to the states, as laws concerning segregation and slavery once were, seems unlikely to yield significant gains for Black people anytime soon.
The effort to find a pathway toward reparations for Greenwood continues. At a news conference a few days after the lawsuit’s dismissal, Mr. Solomon-Simmons announced that his legal team was appealing the judge’s decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. As a show of defiance, he hoisted an oversize reprint of the photograph of Mr. Franklin sitting in his makeshift tent in the aftermath of the massacre. One of Mr. Franklin’s most penetrating quotes sprang to my mind: “Right is slow and tardy, while wrong is aggressive; that’s the only way it can survive.”
Victor Luckerson is the author of “Built From the Fire: The Epic Story of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, America’s Black Wall Street.”
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