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A lawsuit to compensate Tulsa Massacre victims and their descendants was dismissed

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

It's been more than a hundred years since the Tulsa race massacre destroyed a prosperous Black community in Oklahoma. As many as 300 people are thought to have died in that event. Three of the survivors are still alive and have been pursuing a lawsuit for damages, but they face a setback now. A judge has dismissed their case. Elizabeth Caldwell from member station KWGS joins me now from Tulsa. She was at a press conference with the plaintiffs' attorneys today. Elizabeth, thanks for being here.

ELIZABETH CALDWELL, BYLINE: Thank you.

FLORIDO: I want to get to the details of this case, but first, let's talk about the plaintiffs. Who are they?

CALDWELL: Well, this case was brought by survivors from the massacre, and they were children at the time, of course. And given the massacre happened in 1921, there just aren't that many survivors left. They brought this suit against the state of Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa, as well as the county. It would have given compensation to the plaintiffs and their descendants.

FLORIDO: And they filed this case about three years ago, from what I understand. So tell me about what's happened in just the last few days.

CALDWELL: Yeah. Yeah. The case was filed several years ago on behalf of just one survivor and a half-dozen descendants. It sought damages from the government for doing things like supplying weapons for the massacre. And since then, others have joined the case, but Judge Caroline Wahl has dismissed many of them over the last few years. And just a few days ago, Judge Wahl dismissed the last three survivors and the entire case. And at today's press conference, the lead attorney for the survivors said he is not going to quit. He's going to appeal the case. But there is a real concern that the survivors may die before the case concludes. Here's their attorney, Damario Solomon-Simmons.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: And for these three survivors - 109, 108 and 102 years old - to have their case kicked out, it is a travesty. It is absurd, just a complete injustice. So, no, we did not expect this.

CALDWELL: And the names of the plaintiffs are Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis.

FLORIDO: What can you tell us about why Judge Wahl dismissed this case?

CALDWELL: Yeah. Well, we don't really know the judge's reasoning because the opinion isn't available publicly, at least not yet. And regardless, Solomon-Simmons says he's not just going to pursue an appeal to Oklahoma's Supreme Court. He's also looking at the feds, saying he's been urging the Department of Justice to open an investigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SOLOMON-SIMMONS: We'll continue to push that. We're going to continue to push the president of the United States, Joe Biden, who came down here to Tulsa two years ago and said he recognized that the massacre was just that and justice should be done.

CALDWELL: And the case was filed under a public nuisance claim. And Solomon-Simmons argues that the nuisance of the massacre is still going on today because of the destruction it caused.

FLORIDO: Is there support, Elizabeth, in Oklahoma, for the idea of compensating the survivors and their families?

CALDWELL: It's been controversial. At least one mayor here apologized to these survivors, but he said publicly he does not support cash payments. He said it would be unfair to tax people who weren't alive when the massacre happened. And there's been some controversial statements from Oklahoma's superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters, about the massacre. He's since backtracked and said the massacre was racist, but previously he waffled on whether it's even acceptable to teach the massacre. Solomon-Simmons, the attorney for the plaintiffs, did comment on this political environment. He says it's not been helpful.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SOLOMON-SIMMONS: It shows the overarching belief in the state of Oklahoma from elected leaders and officials to try to downplay the massacre at every opportunity, to try to make it seem like it is not as bad as it was, it was not tied to race.

CALDWELL: He said it could be potentially another year before the case resolves, and they don't have that kind of time.

FLORIDO: Elizabeth Caldwell from member station KWGS in Tulsa. thanks.

CALDWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Caldwell
Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.