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GREENWOOD Dist.–For the first time in decades, lawmakers at the Oklahoma State Capitol held a hearing to study progress on recommendations for reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The historic hearing on Thursday, October 5, included two survivors, descendants, reparations experts and lawmakers from both major political parties.
For three hours, the state was reminded of what it owes for its role in the government-sanctioned racial terror attack against the prosperous, Black community of Greenwood.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- Less than 200 scholarships have been awarded to descendants of the Massacre since a state law passed after 2001. 300 were supposed to be awarded each year.
- Experts testify Oklahoma National Guard played a role in the destruction of Greenwood/Black Wall Street.
- The Oklahoma Supreme Court is preparing to hear an appeal from survivors of the Massacre. Oklahoma AG argues the state is not responsible.
- Descendants say Tulsa Mayor destroyed trust and public oversight during mass graves investigation.
- Dr. Tiffany Crutcher says reparations should be part of the “Oklahoma Standard.“
In 2001, the state convened a group to study the Massacre and produce proposals for repair. The group, then called the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, came up with a list of five proposals:
- Reparations to survivors, including direct cash payments.
- Reparations to descendants.
- Scholarships for descendants.
- An economic enterprise zone to encourage business development in Greenwood.
- A memorial for the discovery of remains belonging to victims of the massacre.
Interim study on Reparations for Tulsa Race Massacre
Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa), a descendant of survivors, led the interim study, titled: Update Status and Progress on the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot (Massacre) Commission Report.
Rep. Kevin West (R-Moore), Republican chair of the General Government committee, listened closely during testimony.
Notably, very little action has been taken to address any of the reparations proposals in the last 22 years.
Calling the proposals “long over due,” Rep. Goodwin began the interim study by asking, “At what point do we begin?”
Few scholarships awarded
Attorney Jim Lloyd is one of the original members of the 2001 commission. He called reparations for the Tulsa Race Massacre a “biblically-endorsed path towards righteousness.”
“It’s not just about financial compensation, it’s an acknowledgement of our community’s collective pain and a tangible commitment to heal that pain,” Lloyd said.
He cited scriptures such as Exodus 22:1 and Proverbs 6: 30-31, which advise that perpetrators of harm are “not to merely replace what was taken but to give back manifold.”
Dr. Vivian Clark Adams is another original commission member who teaches at Tulsa Community College. She says her students often ask her why generations today should pay for reparations. Dr. Adams said she responds by telling them someone in their family ancestry has already paid–through their taxes–for restitution to Indigenous groups, Japanese Americans, Hawaiians and others.
She said she was disappointed to learn that few scholarships have been awarded since the 2001 report was published.
Dr. Robert Placido is the Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. During the interim study, he said laws passed by the state legislature have made it nearly impossible to award scholarships to descendants of the Tulsa Race massacre.
The Tulsa Reconciliation and Education Scholarship program requires descendants to show proof of lineage and live within a small perimeter around the original Greenwood neighborhoods. The stringent requirement has led to only one student receiving a full scholarship since 2001.
Taxpayers already pay restitution for police abuse
The Tulsa Reconciliation Education and Scholarship Trust Fund has less stringent requirements, but it only allows two students per Tulsa high school to be eligible each year.
Dr. Placido said that despite the fact that the 2001 commission expected 300 students to be awarded scholarships each year, less than 200 have been awarded in total since the program first began.
“We don’t come close to that number primarily because there hasn’t been dedicated funds towards it,” Dr. Placido said.
Dreisen Heath, an expert researcher on reparations at Human Rights Watch, called the scholarship program “massively underfunded and underserving.”
“Reparations requires a victim-centered approach based on international human rights law,” Heath said.
She compared Oklahoma’s approach to Tulsa Race Massacre reparations with other communities.
In Chicago, survivors of a police torture ring were awarded $100,000 and a trauma-informed care center free for victims and their families.
Princeton Theological Seminary created a full tuition-paid scholarship program for descendants of enslaved Africans who built the campus. And Florida provided full-tuition scholarships for descendants of the Rosewood Massacre after a law passed in 1994.
Notably, Heath said taxpayers in Tulsa and across the state have already paid for restitution to families of police victims.
“Taxpayers can pay for the repair of their community as a result of these state-sanctioned harms,” Heath said.
Oklahoma AG defends state against lawsuit
Currently, the Oklahoma Supreme Court is preparing to hear an appeal from the last three known living survivors. Their public nuisance lawsuit, brought by Justice for Greenwood civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, was dismissed by a Tulsa County District judge in July.
In a written response to the appeal, the office of Oklahoma Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond refused to negotiate a reparations settlement for the Tulsa Race Massacre. His office also claimed the state played no negative role in the attack and called the survivors’ lawsuit “stale claims.”
Meanwhile, records from the Tulsa Historical Society prove that while the city and county deputized thousands of White citizens to kill and capture Black residents of Greenwood, the state national guard also contributed to the trauma.
National guardsmen rounded up Black residents and forced them into internment camps throughout the city.
Some also shot and killed Black residents who were still defending their families, according to Oklahoma National Guard documents shared during the interim study.
“Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.”
Journalist details state’s “failure to protect”
Victor Luckerson is a nationally recognized journalist who recently published “Built From The Fire.” The book details the role government institutions played in the Massacre.
“Tulsa Police deputized White men, giving them authority to ‘get a gun, get busy, and try to get a n*gger,’” Luckerson said, highlighting first-hand accounts.
At least three police officers participated in the destruction, according to court records Luckerson obtained. He said the Oklahoma National Guard, which was called in to stop the mayhem, placed more priority on White-owned property than on the lives of Black residents.
“Two days after the Massacre, the Governor said no state funds would be used to restore Greenwood.”
The failure to protect led to disparities today, Luckerson said.
Racist interpretation of riot clause prevented reparations for Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921
Notably, previous attempts to secure restitution and reparations directly after the Tulsa Race Massacre failed. Insurance companies claimed it was a “riot” that didn’t qualify for payouts.
An attempt at reparations in the early 2000s, led by famous lawyer Charles Ogletree, made it to the United States Supreme Court. Yet it was dismissed, citing statute of limitations.
Side-stepping those hurdles, attorney Solomon-Simmons is hopeful that his public nuisance lawsuit, which utilizes state law, will be successful at the Oklahoma Supreme Court. He warned, however, that it’s up to the state to fully provide reparations for the 102-year-old government-sanctioned attack.
Citing an estimate from Harvard Business School of over $200 million in property damage alone, attorney Solomon-Simmons said the state is responsible for making descendants, survivors and the community whole.
“This is what we’re talking about when we talk about victims compensation,” he said.
No more oversight of mass graves investigation
Some participants of the interim study broke into tears during testimony from descendants who served as members of Tulsa’s Mass Graves Investigation Oversight Committee.
Kristi Williams and Chief Egunwale Amusan recounted how Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum disbanded public meetings and transparency after investigators found a body with bullet wounds during the search for victim remains in July 2021.
The Black Wall Street Times previously reported on a traumatized crowd of Black protesters who looked on in outrage from behind a fence as crews rushed to rebury the bullet-wound inflicted bodies.
Williams is a descendant of John and Loula Williams, Black Wall Street entrepreneurs who build the famous Dreamland Theater. During her time as an oversight member, Kristi Williams helped carry remains found in mass graves to a team of archaeologists for analysis.
When the city rushed to rebury remains without allowing time for a proper memorial ceremony, it re-traumatized the community all over again.
“I had those babies in my hands and the city of Tulsa took them from me. The city took away my commitment to those babies,” Williams said during the interim study.
“I put faces to those skulls. I saw my children looking up at me. And they took that commitment from me. They didn’t investigate thoroughly and put them back into the same mass graves that we dug them out of.”
“An echo of the city’s ugly past”
Meanwhile, Chief Amusan said the mass graves investigation is a state issue since the city is using a state archeologist. Noting that the remains of a pregnant woman were also found and reburied, Chief Amusan said, “fledgling hope and trust were reburied.”
Notably, despite urgent pleas from members of the community, Tulsa has spent five years looking in one place for possible Massacre victims. The city continues to ignore other places that oral history has long said to contain mass graves.
“The mass graves investigation turned into an ugly echo of the city’s ugly past,” Chief Amusan said.
The Oklahoma Standard: Reparations for Tulsa Race Massacre?
Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, a great-granddaughter of Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Rebecca Brown Crutcher, closed out testimony with a message of love.
“Greenwood itself was the greatest love story that this state has ever seen,” Dr. Crutcher said. “When it was burned to the ground, that same kindness allowed us to care for one another.”
Greenwood grew back even bigger after the events from 1921, but city, state and federal policies such as redlining, urban renewal and gentrification led to the community’s ultimate decline.
Dr. Crutcher asked the state to end “policy violence” against Greenwood during the interim study. She ended her testimony with a statement from 102-year-old survivor “Uncle Redd” Hughes Van Ellis.
“We aren’t just black and white pictures on a screen. We are flesh and blood. I was there when it happened. I’m still here,” Van Ellis stated. “My sister was there when it happened, and she’s still here. I still believe in America. We are one. We are one.”
The Black Wall Street Times spoke with Republican Rep. Kevin West, Chair of the General Government committee, after the interim study.
“I would be open to it,” Rep. West said when asked if he would begin conversations in the legislature on these proposals.
Rep. West said he’s especially interested in looking at ways to improve the scholarship programs for descendants.
“I think that those are some of the things we really need to focus on. And once we start gaining some support, that’s where I think we can start really looking at taking some new steps.”
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