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Reparations Sought Decades After Race Riot

Times Staff Writer

A dwindling number of race-riot survivors -- some more than 100 years old -- will finally have a chance to make their case for reparations, eight decades after a white mob tore into a thriving black neighborhood, leaving as many as 300 people dead.

At a federal courthouse here this morning, lawyers representing more than 100 survivors and 300 descendants of victims are scheduled to have their first opportunity to argue that their lawsuit seeking damages from the city and state should proceed to trial. The city and state have asked Senior U.S. District Judge James Ellison to dismiss the suit.

Advocates on both sides see the case as a bellwether in the national campaign to secure reparations for descendants of slaves. Civil rights leaders believe it could shape the reparation movement’s legal strategy and help persuade the public that society bears some responsibility for centuries-old offenses.

Thursday night, in anticipation of today’s hearing, more than 250 people of various races held a vigil. One woman held a hand-painted sign that read, “Tulsa: Two Cities.”

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The Rev. Milford Carter, one of the city’s religious leaders, told the crowd that Tulsa had been “stunted” by a legacy of racism.

“God loves justice and he loves justice now,” he said. “From this day forward, an action begins that will not stop until it finds ultimate commitment.”

The vigil was held at Greenwood Cultural Center in north Tulsa, not far from where the violence erupted May 31, 1921. That day, a local newspaper carried a young white woman’s allegation that she had been assaulted by a black teenager. A white lynch mob walked to the jail where the teen was being held and was met by a group of blacks. A shot rang out, and the riot began.

Thousands of whites descended on the nearby community of Greenwood, a bustling black neighborhood that included a business district known across the South as “Black Wall Street” because of its enterprise and success.

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By the next afternoon, as many as 300 people, mostly blacks, were dead. Thirty-five square blocks of Greenwood were reduced to ash and rubble. More than 1,000 buildings, including churches and schools, were destroyed.

A city investigation concluded that the riot was a “Negro uprising.” No one was ever prosecuted, nor were blacks compensated for the loss of property. Authorities also never prosecuted the teenager on the assault claims.

Though accounts vary, some historians believe that the teen mistakenly stepped on his accuser’s foot in an elevator, causing her to fall, and that she screamed when he tried to catch her.

The survivors’ and descendants’ lawsuit seeks reparations for the death of family members and the loss of homes and businesses.

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Plaintiffs’ lawyers, accusing the city and state of participating in a “conspiracy of silence” after the riot, are seeking unspecified financial damages. They also seek several other means of redress, including a declaration that the state grand jury that carried out the first investigation, exonerating all whites, was a fraud, said Michael D. Hausfeld, a leading attorney for the survivors. The lawsuit seeks to have the state establish a new grand jury that would identify people responsible for the riot.

The state has argued that the 11th Amendment, which typically shields states from federal lawsuits, made it immune from the claims. The city says the statute of limitations for a case such as this is two years, making the lawsuit invalid.

“These arguments are past their time and should not go forward,” said Oklahoma Assistant Atty. Gen. Wellon Poe. “It could very well end here.”

Today’s hearing is expected to address only the requests to have the case thrown out. The judge is not expected to deliver a decision immediately. The loser is expected to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver.

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Several architects of the case, including Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree, are key players in the reparations movement for descendants of slaves. Proponents of reparations believe that 246 years of unpaid labor helped the United States become a superpower, and that the economic disparity between whites and blacks today can be traced directly to slavery.

Ogletree compared the Tulsa case to the early work of Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights icon and the first black Supreme Court justice. As a young lawyer, Marshall picked his first cases carefully, pursuing a strategy that resulted in a landmark decision -- Brown vs. the Board of Education, declaring segregation in public schools illegal -- and helped set the stage for the modern civil rights movement, Ogletree said.

“There will be evidence that this problem is far larger than Tulsa,” he said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Opponents of reparations see parallels too -- and, as a result, say it is paramount that government officials win the case.

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“The liberal mind-set that is bringing the action in Tulsa is the same liberal mind-set that would bring national reparations,” said state Sen. James Williamson, a Tulsa Republican. “There were a lot of wrongs perpetuated against the Oklahoma Indians too. Do we allow them to sue as well? How far do you go? Do the Egyptians today pay for the slavery of Israelites?”

The riot was rarely discussed until 1996, its 75th anniversary, when the Oklahoma Legislature created the Race Riot Commission. Among other findings submitted to the state in 2001, the commission reported that scores of whites were deputized by the Tulsa police that night and that the deputies joined the riot and plundered Greenwood.

“These people were told, ‘Go out and get a damn black person’ -- except they used more offensive language than that, as you might imagine,” said Alfred L. Brophy, a University of Alabama law professor. Brophy, a specialist in race and property law, is to testify today for the plaintiffs.

Analysts call the allegation that the government was complicit in the riot a crucial point. If the strategy succeeds, similar claims could be made in other cities where race-related riots took place, including Houston, Chicago and East St. Louis, Ill. The tactic also could be important in pushing for slavery reparations, because many state and local governments passed laws shoring up the institution of slavery, leaving them open to allegations that they were complicit in the institution, civil rights advocates say.

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“This lawsuit is the vanguard of a political movement, the beginning of a national discussion,” Brophy said. “There are fundamental issues to address. Is America truly a land of unlimited opportunity? Or is it a place where some people have unlimited opportunity and some people have been left behind? Reparations represent a new way of talking about the Great Society.”

These arguments make it clear to state Sen. Charles R. Ford that there is a direct link between the Tulsa lawsuit and the national reparations debate -- and Oklahoma, he believes, must take a stand.

Ford, a Republican, is a Tulsa native, born 10 years after the riots. He said his father was in the masonry business and hid black employees during the riot.

“My concern is that through the process of wanting reparations, history has been rewritten to some degree,” he said. “I don’t feel that the state of Oklahoma, nor any other governmental agency, is culpable.”

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