OKLAHOMA CITY — The last two survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday for the opportunity to plead their case before a court of law, after 103 years of being denied.

A Tulsa County District judge dismissed their lawsuit in October, before the survivors ever got a chance to make their arguments or the fact-finding stage of the lawsuit could begin.

Tuesday’s hearing could be the last time Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Fletcher, both 109 years of age, ever appear in court, noted their attorney, Damario Solomon-Simmons.

“Time is of the essence for these two 109-year-old survivors,” Solomon-Simmons told the court, gesturing to the two women, who had been wheeled into the courtroom, one wearing a black ribboned hat and the other in a tan wide brimmed hat.

There were three survivors of the massacre alive in 2020, when the lawsuit under discussion on Tuesday was filed; Fletcher’s younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, died in October 2023 at the age of 102.  The three were small children living in Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921 when a mob of White Tulsans, aided by local law enforcement and members of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, looted, burned and destroyed more than a thousand homes and businesses that comprised the Greenwood District. 

Also known as Black Wall Street, Greenwood at the time was one of the most prosperous Black communities in the nation, and its destruction is considered the largest instance of racial violence in U.S. history, with an estimated 300 victims still unaccounted for.

The Greenwood District as it exists today has been reduced to little more than one block of mostly Black-owned businesses, while the interstate highway and other commercial developments sit on the surrounding land that used to be part of the Greenwood District.

“In Tulsa, the racial and economic disparities that still exist today can be traced to the 1921 race massacre,” said Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynam as quoted in the lawsuit filed on the survivors’ behalf. 

The lawsuit asserts that the incident created a public nuisance and if the plaintiff’s win, they seek “equitable relief” in a form designated by the court. 

The exact amount of the damages would be determined by means of discovery and fact-finding during the trial; however, a district court judge last October dismissed the case before it ever got the chance to go to trial.

A few of the Oklahoma Supreme Court justice expressed their confusion over Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Hall’s July 2023 decision to dismiss the case with prejudice, a legal maneuver that would prohibit the plaintiffs from refiling the lawsuit again, ending the case for good.

The court record up to that point showed that the court had requested the plaintiffs address a technical issue with their previous filing, with a verbal promise that the case would not be dismissed; then Judge Wall later dismissed the case without providing much explanation for her decision.

“Frankly, I share your confusion as to exactly why she dismissed the case,” said Justice James Edmonson.  “If you can fathom it, I would appreciate the explanation.”

Representatives for the City of Tulsa, Tulsa County and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, all named in the lawsuit as parties bearing some responsibility for the Tulsa Race Massacre, urged the court to uphold Judge Hall’s ruling dismissing the case.

However, many of their arguments for dismissing the case proved somewhat confusing for the justices, as the attorneys appeared to debate the merits of the as-yet-untried lawsuit, instead of addressing the matter before the court on Tuesday:  the question of whether the two survivors of the massacre have the legal standing to sue the city, county and chamber for creating a “public nuisance” that has left the Greenwood blighted to this day.

Garry Gaskins, representing the Oklahoma Military Department, claimed that all state agencies enjoyed “sovereign immunity” and could not be subjected to any lawsuit back in 1921, when the incident occurred; state law did not change to allow state agencies to be held accountable for certain actions until the 1980s.

Furthermore, members of the Oklahoma National Guard acted “outside the scope of their authority” if they committed criminal acts during the massacre, Gaskins said, and so the National Guard cannot be held accountable for their actions.  The National Guard was on site because they were ordered to reestablish the peace, said Gaskins, and so they cannot be held liable for actions taken to fulfill that directive.

John Tucker, representing the Tulsa Regional Chamber, said the current chamber has “adopted policies of the former chamber for the sake of continuity,” but answered “yes and no” when asked if the current chamber may be considered the same legal entity as the Tulsa Chamber whose members participated in the massacre.

Kristina Gray, representing the City of Tulsa, cited the legal term “laches,” which asserts that the court may deny relief to a claimant that has waited an unreasonably long time to assert their claim – in this case, nearly 100 years.

Keith Wilkes, representing the Tulsa County Sheriff, claimed that Greenwood was rebuilt better than ever after the massacre, so the claim that the massacre created a public nuisance is “not supported by history.”

None of the attorneys arguing for the case to be dismissed claimed to have any knowledge of whether the entities they represent currently have an ownership interest in any of the land formerly included in the Greenwood District.

But Tucker noted that the lawsuit, if heard, would disrupt current land holdings in the area.

“There are 1,500 properties that need to be given back to their rightful owners, that’s part of what they seek,” Tucker said.

At the close of Tuesday’s proceedings, Justice Yvonne Kauger stated that she had learned about the Trail of Tears and other injustices when she was in high school, but she had never heard a word about Greenwood.

“Regardless of what happens, what your doing is making sure that will never happen again,” Kauger told Solomon-Simmons. “It will be in the history books.”

Now it is up to the justices to decide if the case may proceed. After the court hearing, Solomon-Simmons thanked the justices for taking up the hearing, and said he hoped they will quickly issue a decision.

“We feel good about our opportunity and we hope the court will rule very quickly because our goal is to make sure these two beautiful young ladies here see justice in their lifetime,” said Solomon-Simmons, referring to “Mother Randall” and “Mother Fletcher.”

The case garnered the attention of news media from all over the country as well as around the world, including the United Kingdom.

Political organizer and strategist Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, executive director of the Terence Crutcher Foundation in Tulsa, said hearing the justices’ questions and comments on Tuesday left her feeling positive and hopeful.

“It seems like the justices understood the law, and we’re hoping that they will make a swift decision and get us back to state court so we can prove our case,” Crutcher said.

Tamika Mallory, co-founder of Until Freedom and one of the leading activists who fought for justice for Breonna Taylor, was also in attendance for Tuesday’s proceedings.  The world is watching what happens in Tulsa, she said.

“I think people like myself from all over the country are here and have been watching today because this case is not just about Tulsa — it is really a national example of communities who have been snuffed out by white supremacy,” Mallory said. “What happens in Tulsa sets the tone for how we continue to fight.  It also gives a signal to the community and to the people that we should never give up.  Over a hundred years later, there can still be justice to come to the families of Tulsa.  All across this nation we know that corporations and entities are on stolen land. They have helped to oppress communities our community, the Black community.  So I think Tulsa is really an example for the rest of the nation of what it looks like to continue to forge ahead, to ensure that justice becomes a real thing.”