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Tulsa: Delaying Justice Isn’t Justice

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There is something so nefarious about waiting for someone to die when money is involved, whether that is standing to gain money or standing not to lose it. Still, either way, the lawmakers of Tulsa, Oklahoma, think they can wash the blood off their hands by simply using the dirt that will cover the graves of three elderly Black trauma survivors. 

Tulsa was not just a city. It was a hub. A bastion. A haven of Black excellence.

The originating details are murky, but the damage was crystal clear. What started with the yell of a young white woman, ended with the death of an entire Black town, most specifically the Greenwood section of the city, affectionately known as “Black Wall Street.” Homes, businesses, and families were irrevocably destroyed in the 1921 fire. Now, 101 years later, the three surviving victims of the decimation of Black Wall Street are awaiting reparations that the lawmakers in Tulsa seem to hope will never happen. 

In May, six of the descendants were dismissed as plaintiffs, even though they were clearly affected. According to Bloomberg, “in court filings, Tulsa argues that the survivors can’t make any claims to ongoing racial disparities stemming from the massacre per a prior ruling from the judge, and also that state laws exempt the city from liability for what happened in the 1921 riots.” It continues by stating Black Tulsa households have just six cents for every dollar of wealth held by white Tulsa households, according to a 2021 Senate Joint Economic Committee report. In the 1960s, an “urban renewal” program and the construction of several highways did further damage to Greenwood.”

The three surviving residents of Greenwood are Hughes Van Ellis, 101, Viola Fletcher, 108 and 107-year-old Lessie Benningfield. They are the plaintiffs in a case against the state of Oklahoma and other municipalities. Two of the survivors, Ellis and Fletcher, are siblings, but all three relate when it comes to the continued trauma and the damage the riots have had on them throughout their lifetimes; witnessing a mass murder at a young age can do that to a person. It was not simply the trauma of seeing their lives go up in flames as young children, but the life that was difficult to craft afterward with no resources. While $30 million were collected for the event’s remembrance, none of the money went to the survivors or their descendants, and now it seems that the state of Oklahoma is dragging its feet, waiting for them to die.

There is no real beauty to this story other than resilience, even though they were children when the massacre happened. The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa was a thriving well-to-do community that is no more. 

The fire wasn’t meant to warm the residents of Greenwood. The fire was meant to destroy. As many as 300 people died and approximately 10,000 were left unhoused, many seeking refuge in a camp. The financial damage equaled to about $34 million today. Money cannot bring loved ones back, but it can bring validation and atonement. It can bring acknowledgment. It can bring a new future for descendants. Instead, responsible parties would rather sit and wait until three centenarians die. There is a reason these people are still alive-because the past is not something you can just bury.

They are not just suing the city but also the state of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma National Guard, the local chamber of commerce, among others, all under Oklahoma’s public nuisance statute, whom they claim all were in collusion to facilitate the massacre and the continued trauma afterward. 

Part of the issue with the massacre is that there has been nothing done to rebuild or correct, for those still alive as well as their descendants. For example, a hospital was burned down and nothing was done to repair or rebuild it, further impacting the health of the descendants of Tulsa. In August, six descendants of the massacre were removed from the case, but Fletcher, Ellis and Benningfield remained. 

There is something about removing the descendants as plaintiffs that seems insidious; we understand the value of generational wealth, but generational trauma is not applicable. We live in a country that screams, “justice for all,” but is waiting for three little old people to die just so they do not have to make proper atonement. The end of their lives is not a substitute for an apology. 

There is no harm reduction in a casket; delaying justice isn’t justice. 

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