Court columns

Oklahoma Supreme Court Rejects Reparations for Tulsa Race Massacre

The decision is the latest — and perhaps final — blow to the massacre’s two remaining survivors in their decades-long quest for justice.  


In 1921, the Tulsa Race Massacre claimed the lives of an estimated 300 Black Oklahomans. The riot was triggered by false allegations that a young Black man working as a shoe shiner had assaulted a white woman in an elevator. The white mob that assembled acted with the explicit support of Tulsa city officials. Over 24 hours, from May 31 to June 1, the mob decimated the vibrant Greenwood neighborhood, nicknamed “Black Wall Street” because of the many prosperous Black-owned businesses lining its streets.

Even though the massacre was more than a century ago, at least two of the thousands of Black residents injured and displaced by the riot are still alive: Viola Fletcher, age 110, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, age 109. They were there when Black Wall Street burned. The massacre forced Fletcher and her family to abruptly flee their home, losing everything. Likewise, Randle’s home was razed by white rioters during the riot. The losses that their families and community experienced as a result of the massacre have affected the women both emotionally and financially throughout their long lives.

No person or institution has ever been held legally accountable for the injuries arising from the riot. Of the individual survivors and affected businesses, historians believe that only a single white business owner received compensation either through the courts or through insurance claims. For decades, government officials tried to paper over the events. Students in Oklahoma schools did not learn about the massacre as part of their state history lessons, and for many years, little was done to tell the story through public commemorations or other activities. 

Last week, the Oklahoma justice system delivered another, perhaps final, blow to the massacre’s victims. In an 8–1 vote in Randle v. City of Tulsa, the state supreme court affirmed the dismissal of the survivors’ claims for compensation under state tort doctrines of public nuisance and unjust enrichment. The survivors’ attorneys have said that they will seek a rehearing before the high court, but that effort is an uphill battle. While one of the nine justices, James Edmondson, did render a partial dissent, he did not write an opinion to explain his position, so there is little for the plaintiffs’ counsel to grab onto as a basis for reconsideration. 

For more than a century, social oppression, legislative inaction, and judicial impotence have stymied the plaintiffs at every turn. Unaware of their rights and unable to enforce them in the Jim Crow era — the system of legalized racial segregation that lasted until the mid-1960s — years passed before the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre were in a position to claim reparations. When they eventually attempted to use civil rights laws to pursue their remedies, the federal courts said that it was too late and refused to waive the statute of limitations barring their claims. The survivors sought relief from the Oklahoma legislature and in 2001 an appointed commission recommended reparations, but the legislature took no concrete action to assist the affected individuals.

The plaintiffs and their attorneys found a sliver of hope in 2019, when a lower court in Oklahoma ruled that drug manufacturers could be held liable under a public nuisance theory for damage caused by the state’s opioid epidemic. Drawing on that precedent, in 2020 the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in state court stating claims of public nuisance and unjust enrichment — theories that would not run afoul of statute of limitations issues because they are based on ongoing harms.

The plaintiffs argued that the defendants, who included the city of Tulsa and other government entities, created a public nuisance in the century since the massacre by thwarting the community’s efforts to rebuild and destroying the plaintiffs’ “sense of comfort, health, and safety” in “their lives and property.” The plaintiffs also argued that Tulsa’s promotion of tourism to the former Black Wall Street area — and defendants’ profiting from a massacre in which they participated — without any compensation to the affected individuals was grossly inequitable and constituted unjust enrichment. The defendants’ retention of profits using the names, likenesses, and stories of the survivors, the plaintiffs said, exacerbated their pain and trauma.

However, in 2021, the Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s opioid ruling that the Tulsa Massacre plaintiffs relied on, holding that the public nuisance law was not intended to address pervasive policy problems.

The court reiterated that position when it dismissed the Tulsa Race Massacre case, characterizing the plaintiffs’ claims as policy concerns and adopting a narrow view of the court’s capacity to address them under the public nuisance doctrine. The court concluded the original injuries were too remote and that the lingering effects of the massacre a century later, if any, were not the responsibility of the current defendants. According to the court, “The continuing blight alleged within the Greenwood community born out of the massacre implicates generational-societal inequities that can only be resolved by policymakers — not the courts.”

As to the unjust enrichment claim, the court concluded that absent some sort of fraud or other abuse used to secure that profit, the plaintiffs failed to provide the necessary predicate for such a claim.

The case is one of many ongoing efforts nationwide to secure reparative justice for race-based wrongs of the past, including slavery. States, including California and New York, and many local governments have established reparations commissions to examine possible responses to the effects of historic racism. Some municipalities have even implemented concrete reparations programs, most notably Evanston, Illinois, which in 2019 became the first city in the country to offer monetary grants to Black residents for its discriminatory housing policies from 1919 to 1969.

Controversy follows these initiatives, however. In June 2024, several white residents of Evanston, represented by the conservative litigation group Judicial Watch, sued the city in federal court. They argue that Evanston’s reparations program illegally uses race as a criterion for distributing compensation, thereby excluding white residents, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Other local reparations programs have been criticized for offering compensation to residents without requiring specific evidence of present-day race-based harm. 

In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch characterized the Tulsa Race Massacre and its aftermath as a human rights violation. As that report noted, “The fact that a government abdicated its responsibility nearly 100 years ago and continued to do so in subsequent years does not absolve it of that responsibility today.” Over the years, every decision-maker, both federal and state, has fallen in line to deny compensation to the massacre’s victims, despite the local government’s complicity in the devastation. The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s opinion joins the rest, sending a clear message to the survivors and their descendants: there will be no justice or accountability here.

Martha F. Davis is a distinguished professor at Northeastern University School of Law.

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