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Tulsa survivor of Massacre speaks; OK Supreme Court listens

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GREENWOOD Dist.–Less than a month before her 109th birthday, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivor “mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle told Good Morning America she wants to see justice.

“I would like to see all of my people here that are trying to make this situation better bring some of those things to life, so people will know that this really is true,” Randle told GMA on October 18. “There’s room for a lot more improvement.”

The rare interview from one of just two last known living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre comes as the Oklahoma Supreme Court considers an appeal of their historic legal case.

tulsa survivor
Tulsa Race Massacre survivor “mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108. (Justice for Greenwood Foundation)

For over 102 years, the Greenwood community has been fighting for justice. On May 31, 1921, after a failed attempt to lynch a Black teenager, the city deputized a White mob numbering in the thousands.

“Some of the things that grandma has seen and experienced she doesn’t want to talk about because it’s like she relives it all over again,” Randle’s granddaughter, Lawanna Penny, told GMA.

Tulsa Race Massacre survivor seeks justice ahead of 109th birthday

The White mob destroyed over 36 square blocks, over 1,200 homes and over 200 businesses, according to the Tulsa Historical Society. While the official tally of Black victims was only 36 in 1921, historians believe hundreds were killed.

In July, Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall dismissed the survivors’ case on the grounds that they couldn’t prove a public nuisance occurred or that the city, county and state defendants were unjustly enriched by it.

However, Justice for Greenwood attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case.

Oklahoma AG’s Office calls lawsuit “stale claims”

Meanwhile, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s Office is defending the state against the lawsuit.

In an August filing, the AG’s office denied the Oklahoma National Guard harmed Black residents and refused to negotiate a settlement with Tulsa Race Massacre survivors. His office also called the survivors’ legal effort “stale claims.

Notably, AG Drummond is considered a moderate Republican among Oklahoma voters. His stance illustrates the words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963.

Dr. King called out the White moderate, “who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom;…”

Only two survivors remain alive

Sadly, On October 9, 102-year-old Tulsa Race Massacre survivor and World War II veteran “Uncle Redd” Hughes Van Ellis passed away. Despite the city’s failure to compensate him for the trauma and terror he endured, he never lost faith in America.

“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 before his death. “My sister was there when it happened, and she’s still here. I still believe in America. We are one. We are one.”

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Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa) leads an interim study on updates to the 2001 reparations proposals for the Tulsa Race Massacre at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Thursday, October 5, 2023. Two survivors, 109-year-old Viola Ford Fletcher and 108-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle are in attendance. (Black Wall Street Times via Jabar Shumate)

City attorneys downplay survivors’ trauma

A day after Van Ellis’ death, Justice for Greenwood attorney Solomon-Simmons announced he filed a brief with the Oklahoma Supreme Court. He argued that he already satisfied the requirements under state law to bring his case to trial.

Roughly 15 days later, in accordance with a court deadline, defendants in the case filed their response.

In asking for the Oklahoma Supreme Court to uphold the district court’s decision, attorneys for the city of Tulsa appeared to dismiss the survivors’ trauma and experience.

“Simply being connected to a historical event does not provide a person with unlimited rights to seek compensation,” the city of Tulsa wrote.

Reparations proposals collect dust

The death of Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Hughes Van Ellis means his older sister “mother” Viola Ford Fletcher, 109, and “mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle remain the last two known survivors of the nation’s worst instance of government-sanctioned terrorism against a Black community.

During an Oklahoma legislative interim study at the state Capitol in October, experts spoke about the lack of progress made to a proposal for reparations that the state commissioned in 2001. Survivors “mother” Fletcher and “mother” Randle were in attendance.

Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa) leads an interim study on updates to the 2001 reparations proposals for the Tulsa Race Massacre at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Thursday, October 5, 2023. Two survivors, 08-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, front row second from the left, and 109-year-old Viola Ford Fletcher, seated next to her, are in attendance. (Black Wall Street Times via Jabar Shumate)

The proposals, which have collected dust for two decades, included direct cash payments to Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and descendants, a scholarship for descendants, a memorial for remains found in mass graves and an economic enterprise zone in Historic Greenwood District.

State leaders made almost no progress on any of the proposals at the legislative level, but Republican Rep. Kevin West expressed interest in moving forward on the scholarships.

I would be open to it,” Republican Chair of the committee Rep. Kevin West told The Black Wall Street Times.

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Is Oklahoma waiting for Tulsa Race Massacre survivors to die?

Meanwhile, with just two last known living Tulsa Race Massacre survivors remaining, many fear the city and state are trying to prolong the legal case until there’s no plaintiffs left alive.

“She needs to see justice in this lifetime, so does ‘mother’ Fletcher. That’s what they need to see in this lifetime while they’re still alive,” Randle’s other granddaughter, Ladonna Penny told GMA.

Justice for Greenwood attorney Solomon-Simmons has until Nov. 6 to respond to the defendants response. After that, the Oklahoma Supreme Court will either hear oral arguments or decide on the case.

Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons announces his team filed an appeal with the Oklahoma Supreme Court seeking to overturn the decision by Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall to dismiss the historic reparations lawsuit for the three living survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (Photo by Chris Creese/Creeseworks)

If the high court upholds the dismissal, it will mean the end of an historic effort.

However, if the court reverses the district decision, the case for the Tulsa Race Massacre survivors will go back to Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall for a discovery phase and trial.

“Mother” Randle turns 109 years old on November 10.

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