Survivors of Tulsa Race Massacre call on President Biden to open investigation into 1921 attack


(TULSA, Okla.) — Two survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre are calling on President Joe Biden to open an investigation into the deadly attack following the Oklahoma Supreme Court decision last month to dismiss the survivors’ lawsuit that sought reparations.

Lessie Benningfield Randle, 109, and Viola Ford Fletcher, 110, made a plea to the Biden administration on Tuesday to invoke the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, which allows for cold cases of violent crimes against Black people committed before 1970 to be reopened and investigated.

“We must face it, and we must give respect to our survivors and descendants in this community by demanding that the Department of Justice immediately investigate what happened here, on this sacred ground, over 100 years ago,” Tiffany Crutcher, a descendant of massacre survivors and the executive director of the Terence Crutcher Foundation, said. “This community is watching, President Biden. This nation is watching.”

Randle and Fletcher have also filed a petition for a rehearing to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, asking the court to consider the case again following its June 12 decision to dismiss the survivors’ lawsuit against defendants, which include the city of Tulsa. They were seeking reparations and wanting to hold someone accountable for the massacre and its long-term effects on the local and national Black community.

In an 8-1 decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the survivors against the city of Tulsa, the Board of County Commissioners for Tulsa County, the Tulsa Regional Chamber and the Oklahoma Military Department, affirming a July 2023 decision by Tulsa District Court Judge Caroline Wall to dismiss the suit with prejudice, meaning that the case cannot be refiled.

“We are profoundly disappointed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court decision to reject our lawsuit. And we are deeply sad that we may not live long enough to see the state of Oklahoma or the United States of America honestly confront and right the wrongs of one of the darkest days of history,” Randle and Fletcher said in a joint statement.

Fletcher’s younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, was the third plaintiff when the suit was originally filed in 2020. He died last fall at age 102. The suit now names Muriel Watson, personal representative for his estate, as the third plaintiff.

The lawsuit included a claim of public nuisance, alleging that as a result of the massacre, the survivors “continue to face racially disparate treatment and city-created barriers to basic human needs, including jobs, financial security, education, housing, justice and health, that annoy, injure, or endanger their comfort, repose, health, or safety and render them insecure in life, or in the use of their property.”

According to the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision, though the plaintiffs’ grievances are legitimate, they do not fall within the scope of the state’s statute for public nuisance.

Besides the allegations of public nuisance, attorneys for the survivors argued that the city of Tulsa has used the historic reputation of Black Wall Street for their own financial benefit. Attorneys argued that any money the city receives from promoting Black Wall Street, the site of the massacre, should be put into a compensation fund for victims and their descendants.

Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, white Tulsa residents set fire to and bombed several square blocks of the city, killing an estimated 300 Black residents and leaving thousands homeless, according to historians. The area affected by the massacre included the Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, because of its successful shops and businesses owned by Tulsa’s Black residents.

Though the massacre deeply affected the Greenwood community, it was largely omitted from local, state and national histories for years. In 1997, the Oklahoma State Legislature authorized the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission released its final report in February 2001. In more recent years, the massacre has gotten more attention from the media due to the survivors’ ongoing fight for reparations. Still, there has been no government investigation and no parties have been held accountable for the massacre.

“But now that we have been failed by the courts, now that we’ve been failed by the Congress, we’re calling upon President Biden to fulfill his promise to these survivors, to this community and for Black people throughout this nation,” DaMario Solomon-Simmons, lead attorney for the survivors, said. “We hurt as a community, a national Black community, for the destruction of Greenwood.”

ABC News’ Sabina Ghebremedhin contributed to this report.

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