Friday, September 4, 2020

Finding Justice for Greenwood

By Professor Eric Miller, Leo J. O'Brien Fellow

This week, Prof. Miller joined with other Justice for Greenwood advocates in discussing reparations for the Tulsa Race Massacre. Below is an excerpt of his remarks. View the press conference.

Overwhelmingly, white business and political leaders have sought to appropriate the history of the massacre for their own interests. They have done this since the days following the massacre itself. In the immediate aftermath of the Massacre, member of the State National Guard, the County Sheriff’s Department, and the City of Tulsa Police herded the survivors of the massacre into internment camps where they held for three days. In a scheme concocted by the Chamber of Commerce, the National Guard, and the City of Tulsa, white Tulsans could sponsor an internee, and farm them out under threat of violence and without pay in conditions that amounted to slave labor. Under this scheme, Black residents of Tulsa marked with a literal badge of inferiority, a green card that the survivors had to wear to avoid further reprisals.

The City and its white business class saw an opportunity to grab the land they had burned from the survivors of the Massacre. They ensured that the victims received no compensation from the City and enacted illegal fire regulations and zoning ordinances to prevent rebuilding. For the rest of the summer and through the winter, the Massacre victims lived as refugees on their own land in red cross tents. The City and County destroyed the leadership of the community, murdering local leaders, professionals, and business owners who contributed to the community's prosperity, including nationally renowned surgeon Dr. A.C. Jackson. The County empaneled a grand jury to indict Black community leaders, such as J.B. Stradford, a hotelier and businessman, and A.J. Smitherman, a local attorney. These leaders fled the state, never to return.

White Tulsans have sought to tell the history of the Massacre in ways that most benefit themselves. When word of the Massacre spread across the country, money started to flow in to help the survivors. The Defendants, including the Chamber of Commerce, decided that they would be the ones to tell the story of the Tulsa Massacre; and that they would determine what to do with the money.

Immediately following the murders, lootings, and burning, the City of Tulsa and Chamber of Commerce colluded to minimize the impact of the massacre in the local and national press. Initially, they appropriated for themselves money sent from around the country to help the homeless, destitute victims. To minimize the financial harm to white businesses, the white community, falsely labeled the Massacre a Riot and blamed the destruction on the Black residents of Greenwood. When that was not enough to rehabilitate the reputation of white business leaders, the City, the County, and the Chamber of Commerce denied the massacre had ever happened, and affirmatively rejected aid from around the country intended to assist the Massacre victims. For the next 75 years, white political and business leaders silenced Black Tulsans and the Greenwood diaspora from recounting their experiences of the massacre and demanding restitution. 
I’m going to explain why the remedy for a public nuisance provides restoration and repair for the survivors of the massacre, the descendants of the victims, and the current residents of Greenwood and North Tulsa. The remedy for a public nuisance is for the folks who caused the problem to fix it. Lawyers call this remedy, “abatement.” We will ensure that the remaining survivors, the descendants of the victims and members of the Greenwood and North Tulsa community are the people who get to tell the history of the Massacre and who direct the financial, social, cultural, and political wellbeing of their community.

Justice for Greenwood is for the survivors, victims, descendants, and Black residents of Greenwood and North Tulsa to determine for themselves. The City of Tulsa, the Chamber of Commerce, and the other defendants’ created a public nuisance, grounded in racism, and which is an ongoing public health crisis. Black Tulsans deserve to direct the rebuilding of a safe and secure community.

Justice for Greenwood is not the property of the City of Tulsa and the other defendants to give as they choose. Since 2001, when the history of Black Wall Street was recovered and celebrated by African Americans, the City government and Chamber of Commerce sought to appropriate the history of the Massacre for itself. For them, the Greenwood District is nothing more than a tourist attraction. Rather than include the African American survivors and descendants, or other Black Tulsans, in telling the history of the Massacre, the City and Chamber of Commerce have turned Black Wall Street into a brand for white Tulsans to sell. The City and Chamber have declined to address the continuing impacts of Tulsa’s policies in producing a geographically and socially isolated black community marked by economic, health, educational, and safety deficits.

Marginalizing the Black survivors, diaspora, and Tulsa community minimizes the continuing impact of the massacre on these people today. None of them have received compensation for their losses. Their voices are missing from the histories of the Massacre. For example, Lessie Randle, who is 105 years-old, and one of at least three still-living survivors of the Massacre. continues to see the mages of the Black bodies that were “stacked up” on the street as her neighborhood was burning. She constantly relives the terror of May 31 and June 1, 1921. And yet the City of Tulsa has done nothing to compensate her for the damage it inflicted upon her life.

The defendants are to foot the costs necessary to compensate the Massacre survivors and descendants of the victims, as well the residents of Greenwood and North Tulsa, by promoting political, educational, and business institutions run by the Greenwood diaspora and Black citizens of North Tulsa, and to provide the people still affected by the Massacre and the continuing public nuisance with the ability to determine how best to memorialize the Massacre.

We seek an injunction requiring Defendants who use the likenesses of victims of the Massacre to provide fair and equitable compensation to the descendants. Because Justice for Greenwood is for the Black residents of Greenwood and North Tulsa to determine for themselves, we will obtain an injunction prohibiting Defendants receiving any money or other material benefits from their appropriation of the Massacre and the legacy and reputation of the Greenwood District and neighborhood. Any fees due the Defendants associated with providing licensing or other services to private or public groups to implement this appropriation, including the Greenwood Rising History Center, shall be placed in a Victims Compensation Fund. That fund shall be available individual members of the Greenwood and North Tulsa communities, as well as local, grassroots, Black owned and Black led organizations and businesses, to rebuild the social, economic, cultural, and political infrastructure and integrity of their communities.

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