‘We survived’: Tulsa Race Massacre survivors celebrate latest ruling

The three remaining survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, their lawyers and a host of supporters last Monday celebrated a judge’s decision to allow their lawsuit seeking reparations for the decimation of the former district known as Greenwood, or "Black Wall Street," to move forward after the defendants sought to dismiss the case altogether, saying too much time has passed.

Video transcript

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DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: Because we're not asking the court to do anything novel or special for our survivors because they're survivors. We simply want the court to treat them as regular Americans, first-class citizens.

- Justice for Greenwood celebrating after a judge allowed a portion of the group's lawsuit to move forward. They sued the city, county, chamber, and others, seeking reparations and rebuilding in connection with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: I'm Damario Solomon-Simmons. I'm a national civil rights attorney who represents the last known three living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, also the founder and executive director of the Justice for Greenwood Foundation. The first time in over 100 years that a case related to the Tulsa Race Massacre will move forward in some form or fashion.

It's historic because this has never happened. There's been many, many, many attempts. Over a hundred lawsuits or so have been filed in the past. And we got to the next stage so we survived the motion to dismiss.

We have three living survivors. They want to see just what we're hoping to get, due process, justice. They want to see the law applied to them as it'd be applied to anyone else. That's the beauty of this case. We are actually utilizing a law that's been on the books in Oklahoma for well over a hundred years. And for over a hundred years, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has stated the way that we are trying to utilize this law actually fits right in line how it's supposed to be used.

SARA SOLFANELLI: I'm Sara Solfanelli. I am special counsel for pro bono initiatives at Schulte Roth & Zabel, a New York-based law firm. We have the great honor and privilege to co-counsel with Damario and represent the survivors, the last three known living survivors, and descendants.

There's no dispute by anybody, not by the defendants, of what happened, that there was a massacre that lasted two days that decimated a thriving, peaceful Black community in the Greenwood area of North Tulsa. Hundreds of people were killed. Thousands of homes and businesses burned to the ground. Planes, private planes, dropped bombs on that community, on American soil. It was the worst act of domestic terrorism in our history.

And a challenge was a lot of people didn't even know about it, I think, for a lot of people to understand initially, how are you suing about something that happened over a hundred years ago. And something we've all heard is some people, particularly white people, might say, but it was my ancestors. What do I have to do with it? What's going to come out of this? That can be challenging to try to explain, well, in our situation, for this lawsuit, for this case, for this community, we're not talking about something that happened a hundred years ago. We're talking about something that's happening right now to this day.

MICHAEL SWARTZ: Michael Swartz. I am a litigation partner and co-chair of the litigation group at Schulte Roth & Zabel, and I'm also counsel to the plaintiffs. We think a lot about the precedent that this case sets. It is based on bedrock Oklahoma state law. It has a broad public nuisance statute. And although public nuisance has been applied for a hundred years, people hadn't thought to apply it in this type of way to a-- to criminal acts conducted that destroy a community, to destruction of property that destroyed public rights.

We went in court through crime after crime that was committed by the defendants back in 1921 and the harm that continues throughout this day. The remedy will be for the public at large. It's not for any one individual. Lots of people should benefit. But it's a chance to restore the Greenwood community, North Tulsa, to what it was.

I mean, you'll never get those years back. But the idea is that the whole community is going to have another shot at moving forward, having everything-- the physical things rebuilt. You can't repair the-- whatever happened to people and their suffering through all the years, but rebuilding that society and giving the community a chance going forward.

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