Today (May 31) and tomorrow (June 1) mark the 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a violent attack by white rioters on Black residents and businesses in Oklahoma’s prosperous Greenwood District, also known as Black Wall Street.
The deadly rampage, which left hundreds of Black Americans killed, businesses and homes destroyed and has been described as “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” will be commemorated with events and a visit from President Joe Biden on Tuesday.
As the observation of the massacre approached earlier this month, advocates and descendants of survivors have ramped up their legal efforts to finally get restitution for the atrocities that Black families and business owners endured over the two-day attack. One of those legal efforts is a lawsuit that aims to find the full amount of damage perpetrated by white rioters and address the lasting effects of inequality in the city today.
“It’s, in my view, probably the worst act of domestic terrorism that we’ve ever seen,” McKenzie Haynes, one of the lawyers involved in the suit, told CBC Radio this week. “Black people in America have been hunted and treated like non-humans for centuries and what happened in Tulsa in 1921 was just a testament of that.”
The suit doesn’t name a monetary value that Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and their descendants are owed, but instead introduces several measures that are intended to decrease the economic inequality felt in the area as a direct result of the riot.
“Their property was taken, businesses were destroyed, people were murdered, families were separated and [north] Tulsa became a ghetto,” Haynes said. “The inequalities are tremendous.”
Past legal efforts to get reparations for survivors and their descendants have failed due to the statute of limitations. However, this new suit mirrors arguments used in the 2019 ruling that held Johnson & Johnson accountable for Oklahoma’s opioid drug crisis. At the time, the pharmaceutical company was ordered to pay $527 million in restitution after a judge found their deceptive marketing caused an “ongoing public nuisance.” Under the state’s “public nuisance statute,” Haynes said, the statute of limitations can be overlooked.
“We wanted to parallel the race massacre and the harm that was caused as a ‘public nuisance,’ basically saying that the massacre itself caused a public nuisance that is continuing to this day,” she explained.
The future of the lawsuit will be determined tomorrow, when plaintiffs submit their response to a motion to dismiss the suit. Watch the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commemoration and candlelit vigil, which were broadcast earlier this morning, below.