Viola Ford Fletcher, a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, attends a ceremony in Tulsa on May 31. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
“I am 107 years old and I have never seen justice. I pray that one day I will.” That was the hope expressed by Viola Ford Fletcher, the oldest survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre when she testified in May before Congress about her memories of May 31 and June 1, 1921, when she — just 7 years old — witnessed a White mob go on a murderous rampage that obliterated the thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood. Last week, Ms. Fletcher — along with the two other survivors of that terrible night — sat in a courtroom in Oklahoma and listened to arguments that may well determine if there will ever be the justice she has sought.
At issue in the hearing before Oklahoma District Court Judge Caroline Wall was whether a lawsuit seeking reparations brought by survivors and descendants of the massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history, will be allowed to proceed to trial. Defendants in the landmark case, including the city of Tulsa and the regional chamber of commerce, have pushed for the case to be dismissed. Previous efforts to obtain restitution have failed. They included a 2003 suit that was blocked due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to make it easier for the massacre claims to be pressed, but its prospects are unclear.
So hopes of the survivors and descendants are riding on the new lawsuit that is built on the argument that the massacre is an “ongoing nuisance” and its effects are still felt by Black residents. Included here: unemployment among Black Tulsans is more than double that of White people in the city; the median household income for Black residents is $20,000 less than their White counterparts; only 34.8 percent of Black residents own their homes, compared to 58 percent of White residents. Lawyers for the massacre survivors and descendants pointed out the same legal theory of public nuisance was successfully used by Oklahoma in the state’s lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company for its role in the opioid epidemic. Judge Wall didn’t rule immediately but promised a speedy decision. That the city and state and other defendants are fighting to deny the survivors and descendants even their day in court is in line with their shameful failure to try to make any amends for the lasting damage of the massacre and how efforts to rebuild Greenwood were thwarted with such policies as redlining and the use of the eminent domain to seize Black property. Instead of paying reparations, as was once recommended by the state legislature, the city and state denied responsibility and just waited as survivors died one by one.
In her testimony to Congress, Ms. Fletcher said she has been blessed with a long life and that she has seen the worst and best of the country. She — and the others who suffered irreparable damage from the racism that has poisoned our history — should not have to wait any longer for justice.