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Last remaining Tulsa Race Massacre survivors argue for appeal in reparations lawsuit dismissal

TULSA, Okla. — Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Ford Fletcher, both 109 years old, went to the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday afternoon to appeal the dismissal of their lawsuit against the City of Tulsa for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

"We are grateful that our now-weary bodies have held on long enough to witness an America, and an Oklahoma, that provides Race Massacre survivors with the opportunity to access the legal system," Randle and Fletcher, the last survivors of the incident, said in a joint statement Tuesday. "Many have come before us who have knocked and banged on the courthouse doors only to be turned around or never let through the door."

The lawsuit, filed against the city, seeks reparations for Randle and Fletcher for injury, public nuisance and unjust enrichment others have gained from exploiting the massacre, according to court documents.

Lawyers for the victims and their families are making the legal argument that there is an ongoing “public nuisance” in the Greenwood community that started because of the massacre more than 100 years ago.

During Tuesday’s hearing, lawyers for city officials argued that the state’s top court should end the case because they say the survivors haven’t shown that there was a violation of any "public right" that would allow a legal claim of a public nuisance.

"The destruction of buildings, homes and businesses are certainly unconscionable and tragic, but they are technically an aggregate of private rights," Garry Gaskins, Solicitor General at the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General, said during Tuesday’s hearing. "While a large number of people may have been injured during the Tulsa Race Massacre, the destruction of the buildings, homes and businesses does not meet the definition of a public good, such as air, water or public rights of way."

The state’s highest court did not announce a decision on Tuesday or say when it would reach one. Attorneys of the last two survivors point out that if the court does not make a decision soon, Tuesday’s hearings may be Randle and Fletcher’s last court appearance and chance to seek justice, given their advanced age.

In July, the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice in Tulsa District Court by Judge Caroline Wall, meaning that the case could not be refiled. The court's decision on the appeal could potentially change that.

"To be clear, the fight facing Mother Fletcher and Mother Randle is about more than just Black Wall Street. It is about the right of every person in Oklahoma to be rest assured that if they are ever abused, swindled, or exploited, they will have a reasonable chance to prove their case in court," Damario Solomon-Simmons, lead attorney for the survivors, said in a statement. "This is what every American deserves, and it's what the City of Tulsa, one of the main culprits behind the Tulsa Race Massacre, is trying to take away."

Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, white Tulsa residents set fire to and bombed several square blocks of the city, including the Greenwood District, which was known as Black Wall Street, because of its successful shops and businesses owned by Tulsa's Black residents.

An estimated 300 Black residents were killed and thousands were left homeless after the Tulsa massacre, according to historians.

Fletcher's younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, was the third plaintiff when the suit was originally filed in 2020. He died last fall at the age of 102 years old.

Though a decision was not made by the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday, Justice Yvonne Kauger commended the plaintiffs for their dedicated fight for justice.

"When I went to high school, I knew about the trail of tears. I knew why Chief Porter wanted prohibition in the Constitution, but Greenwood was never mentioned," she said. "So I think regardless of what happens, you're all to be commended for making sure that that will never happen again. It will be in the history books."

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