For years, residents of Greenwood, the neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla., that was once home to Black Wall Street, have attempted to bring the area back to its former glory. Once a thriving hub of Black prosperity, the neighborhood is now most famous for being the site of one of the deadliest racial massacres in American history, the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, in which a mob of white vigilantes, aided by the city government, descended upon Greenwood, setting fire to businesses, killing hundreds of Black residents, and displacing many thousands more.
On Tuesday, Justice for Greenwood Advocates, a team of civil and human rights lawyers led by Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon Simmons, filed a lawsuit demanding the city of Tulsa finally redress the long-term damage caused by the 1921 massacre. The suit also argues that a century of economic divestment and political neglect since the massacre has only entrenched deep racial disparities in the area.
“The approaching centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre shines a light on the nearly century-long blight on the City of Tulsa and its failure to provide Justice for Greenwood,” the Solomon Simmons Law firm wrote in a press release shared with The Root. “The deteriorating conditions in the Greenwood neighborhood and North Tulsa, caused by official acts of violence and disregard for the lives of the Black residents, still cry out for redress.”
The statement points out that city officials were a part of the original massacre and helped cause further damage to the Black neighborhood in the decades since.
“White elected and business leaders not only failed to repair the injuries they caused, they engaged in conduct to deepen the injury and block repair,” the firm wrote.
The leading plaintiff is 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle, one of two known massacre survivors still living. Also included among the list of plaintiffs are descendants of massacre survivors and victims, including Laurel Stradford, great-granddaughter of J.B. Stradford, who owned the Stradford Hotel in Greenwood, the largest Black-owned hotel in the United States at the time; and Stephen Williams, grandson of massacre victim Attorney A.J. Smitherman, who owned the nationally circulated Tulsa Star Newspaper.
Named as defendants for their direct participation in the massacre are the City of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the State National Guard and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. But also listed are the Tulsa Metropolitan Planning Commission and the Tulsa Development Authority, who helped entrench systemic inequality through policies that devalued and took property from Black Greenwood residents.
But arguably as significant as the lawsuit are the tactics lawyers will use to try to win their case. The lawsuit argues that the defendants “caused a public nuisance” by destroying Greenwood and failing to rebuild it. As defined by Oklahoma law, a “nuisance” is an unlawful act or omission of duty, which “annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others . . . or . . . [i]n any way renders other persons insecure in life, or in the use of property.” A nuisance is considered public once effects on an entire community or neighborhood are established.
The state of Oklahoma itself has successfully wielded this concept in its 2019 legal battle with Johnson & Johnson over the company’s deceptive marketing of opioids, winning a landmark $572 million settlement from the multinational corporation (a judge later decreased the payout by $100 million).
Attorney Damario Solomon Simmons, a native of Tulsa, is confident that the nuisance argument will work against the city and force officials to redress the damage done by the massacre in more impactful ways.
“This litigation will compel the Defendant to finally do what is right: accept responsibility for its heinous crime of causing and continuing a nuisance to the present day and repairing it,” Solomon-Simmons said.
The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce launched a GoFundMe at the start of the year in an attempt to rebuild Black Wall Street. But thus far, the community has met only a fraction of its $1 million goal, raising just over $35,000 as of September 1.
In May, Human Rights Watch called for reparations to be given to survivors and descendants of the Tulsa Massacre. The organization’s report notes that the statute of limitations has limited what Greenwood residents can hope to accomplish via the courts. Meanwhile, “ongoing racial segregation, discriminatory policies, and structural racism” have continued to rob Black Tulsans, particularly those living in North Tulsa, of opportunities and a better quality of life, the report found.
Looking back over the 100 years that have passed since the violent 1921 attack, HRW observed, “no one has ever been held responsible for these crimes, the impacts of which Black Tulsans still feel today.”