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Tulsa Race Massacre reparations lawsuit can proceed

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

This week a judge in Oklahoma ruled that a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa for its role in the 1921 race massacre can go forward. The plaintiffs include the last three known survivors, who lived through the attack as children more than a century ago. Reporter Chris Polansky of member station KWGS was in the courtroom for the judge's ruling. Thanks for joining us.

CHRIS POLANSKY, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

FLORIDO: So this massacre from over a hundred years ago - remind us what happened.

POLANSKY: Sure. In 1921, a mob of white Tulsans attacked the Black neighborhood of Greenwood, which was pretty well-known in its time for being a district of Black wealth and culture. You've probably heard of it being called Black Wall Street. This mob destroys virtually the entire neighborhood, looting homes and stores, setting fires. And they kill as many as 300 people. Afterwards, the city and insurance companies reject claims for compensation for the victims. There are even some explicit calls for the neighborhood not be allowed to be rebuilt. And the neighborhood never does build back into what it was, and victims are never given restitution.

FLORIDO: So let's fast-forward to this week. What is this lawsuit seeking?

POLANSKY: So the plaintiffs include descendants of massacre victims as well as the three last known living survivors. There's Hughes Van Ellis. They call them Uncle Red. He's 101. And Viola Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield Randle are each 107.

FLORIDO: Wow.

POLANSKY: They're suing the city, the state of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma National Guard, the local chamber of commerce among others, all under Oklahoma's public nuisance statute. They're saying these organizations aided and abetted the massacre, creating a nuisance in Greenwood that continues to this day in the form of various inequities. They want the defendants to make it right with things like a victims' compensation fund and a tax exemption for descendants. The entities being sued, meanwhile, acknowledge the massacre was horrible but say that there is no ongoing nuisance in a legal sense. Their attorneys kept saying in court that they're being asked to solve racism. Keni Ukabiala, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, says that's not accurate.

KENI UKABIALA: That is absolutely not what we're asking to do. If you look at the facts that we have alleged in our complaint and then look at the relief that we have requested, you can see that it is very clearly tied to the conduct of the massacre and the resulting harm that the defendants have instituted through their policies over the hundred years following the massacre.

POLANSKY: So as an example, the plaintiffs note a hospital was destroyed during the massacre and never rebuilt. And today, health outcomes are demonstrably worse in Greenwood than in other parts of Tulsa. So they're asking for health care access in the neighborhood as part of their abatement plan.

FLORIDO: So after the judge's ruling allowing this lawsuit to go forward, where do things stand right now?

POLANSKY: Well, the city and other defendants had asked the judge to throw out the lawsuit entirely. As you noted, she did not do that, and so now the lawsuit moves ahead. And that means experts like historians, economists, archaeologists, developers even will likely be called upon to come to Tulsa and figure out a plan to present to the court to address these issues. Lead attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons has been working on this for a long time, and he's trying to move quickly. He got a little emotional talking to reporters after the hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: We want them to see justice in their lifetime. I personally have seen so many survivors die in my 20-plus years working on this issue. I just don't want to see the last three die without justice.

POLANSKY: So you can tell they're really hoping these survivors are around to see a win in court and some sense of justice even if it has taken over a century.

FLORIDO: That's Chris Polansky of member station KWGS in Tulsa, Okla. Thanks very much.

POLANSKY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "3WW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.