It’s safe to say that Tulsa, my hometown, is having a moment.
In 2019, we had Watchmen. Without warning, the opening scene of this acclaimed HBO series plunged viewers into the gut-wrenching violence and horror of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. It was a shocking twist that brought the destruction of Greenwood, affectionately known as Black Wall Street, into the national consciousness—or at least into Google search engines. And the internet is still raving over the Oct. 10 episode of Lovecraft Country, in which three characters traveled back in time to 1921 Tulsa to retrieve a magic book that burned when white mobs set Black Wall Street ablaze.
Tulsa will receive an extra dose of nationwide fascination this week, with the search for the remains of Tulsa Race Massacre victims finally resuming Monday. During the previous phase of the excavation, the white-led city government made the decision to stream its search via a Facebook live feed.
You might assume I’d be thrilled that storytellers are bringing the truth about Black Wall Street to millions after decades of our history collecting dust in obscurity. Yes, Watchmen turned the Massacre into a trending topic for weeks, and Lovecraft Country may well have the same effect. But that’s cold comfort for this Tulsa native because a real-life Greenwood drama is playing out in my city right now, with implications far greater than ratings.
Last month, my team of civil and human rights lawyers filed a lawsuit demanding that the city of Tulsa and other defendants repair the damage they did in causing a public nuisance with their destruction of Greenwood in 1921, their continuing failure to rebuild what they had destroyed and their audacity in seeking to reap and, in fact, continue reaping benefits from their destructive acts. The lawsuit seeks redress for the wanton destruction of the Greenwood community and economic and social justice for the thousands of descendants of the original victims of the Massacre. The racist attack obliterated a thriving Black community of more than 10,000 souls—two of whom are still with us today.
These two remaining heroes are 105-year-old Mother Lessie Benningfield Randle and 106-year-old Mother Viola Fletcher, two of the plaintiffs in the reparations lawsuit against the city. Last week, Mother Randle helped us make history by participating in the first-ever court deposition related to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, conducted by video due to the pandemic. Under oath and in the presence of the attorneys representing the same entities that destroyed Greenwood, Mother Randle boldly told her story of how the Massacre and the continued oppression of Black Tulsans ever since negatively impacted herself, her family, and the greater Greenwood community. Mother Fletcher followed suit by giving an equally powerful testimony.
These two extraordinary centenarians shared stories that have waited 99 years to be told, proving once again that Black women are stronger than they should ever have to be.
Like Watchmen creator Damon Lindelof said during his Emmy acceptance speech, the fires on Black Wall Street “still burn today.” Nearly 100 years after the massacre, Black people in Tulsa are far more likely than their white counterparts to experience poverty, police violence, and incarceration. Mother Fletcher and Mother Randle have yet to receive a cent for their losses despite the government’s role in the carnage. The fires will continue to burn unless people with public platforms—whether in the entertainment industry, in government office, on the campaign trail—use their voice and power to support the Black Tulsa community’s fight for reparations.
Financial redress won’t bring back what was lost in the massacre, but it is a step toward treating the pain of the survivors and their descendants with the seriousness that they deserve. While it’s nice for the Black Tulsa community to be getting its moment, a moment isn’t nearly enough.
Damario Solomon-Simmons is a national civil rights attorney. He is the founder of Justice For Greenwood Foundation, Inc. a 501(c)(3) organization focused on justice and reparations for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre through innovative legal strategies, public education, and advocacy.