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‘It’s shameful.’ Massacre survivors’ lawyers demand Tulsa be the next city to pay reparations

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Two years after the Tulsa massacre left some 300 Black people dead and a once-booming neighborhood destroyed, another White mob attacked a Black enclave in Florida.

The incident, known as the Rosewood massacre, would end with at least eight casualties: six Black people and two White people. Historians say the violence erupted after a White woman claimed she was a assaulted by a Black man.

Similar to Tulsa, the community was decimated and many survivors left and never returned.

But in 1994, Florida’s legislature would pass a bill that awarded $150,000 payments to survivors who could prove they owned property during the massacre and set up a scholarship fund for their descendants who attended state colleges.

As Tulsa commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the attack on “Black Wall Street” this week, massacre survivors and their descendants continued their fight for reparations, demanding the city atone for the trauma they’ve endured for decades.

On Monday, Oklahoma State Sen. Kevin Matthews — who chairs 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission — told CNN an event was canceled because of a financial gift requested by the three remaining survivors of the massacre. Matthews said the commission and lawyers for the survivors agreed the commission would raise $100,000 per survivor, and provide a seed gift of $2 million for a reparation coalition fund. However, Matthews said the survivors’ lawyers reached out a day after their agreement and increased the amount to $1 million per survivor and a $50 million in seed money.

“We could not respond to those demands,” Matthews said. “To be clear, I absolutely want the survivors, the descendants, and others that were affected, to be financially and emotionally supported. However, this is not the way, no matter how hard we tried.”

Damario Solomon Simmons, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit against the city of Tulsa that is separate from negotiations with the commission, told CNN in a statement there was never a non-negotiable demand for $50 million. And Simmons’ co-counsel Sara E. Solfanelli told CNN the $1 million per survivor request was also negotiable.

Simmons said the legal team submitted a list of seven requests to ensure the survivors’ participation in the commission’s scheduled events and answers to those requests were not provided.

Non-negotiable demands included a fund that would provide direct financial support to survivors and descendants, and for the fund to be administered by descendants and community members and held in a Black-owned bank, Simmons said.

“We have three remaining survivors,” Simmons said in a statement. “They will be heard. They will live with grace and dignity. The time for justice is now.”

Last September, a lawsuit seeking reparations was filed in the Tulsa County District Court by Justice for Greenwood Advocates — a team of civil and human rights lawyers. The plaintiffs include 106-year-old massacre survivor Lessie Randle, Vernon A.M.E Church — the only building left standing after an angry White mob burned down Black-owned homes and business — and relatives of other victims.

The legal battle comes as lawmakers and elected officials across the country renew conversations about reparations following the racial reckoning that started last year. And while cities have had the support to pass and propose reparations programs, getting federal legislation won’t be as simple. In April, the House Judiciary Committee passed H.R. 40, which would create a commission to study reparations for descendants of enslaved Americans and recommend remedies for the harm caused by slavery and the discriminatory policies. The bill, however, isn’t likely to become law because it faces opposition from some Democrats and most Republicans and it’s not expected to receive the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster in the Senate.

While the legislation stalls, leaders in the fight for reparations continue to pressure federal and state lawmakers to atone for the country’s past sins.

“Reparations is a matter of urgency, it always has been,” said Dreisen Heath, a researcher and advocate for Human Rights Watch. “How do we get to reconciliation without reparations? You can’t.”

How other reparations programs work

Heath said existing reparations programs in Rosewood and other communities could serve as a model for Tulsa.

In Evanston, Ilinois, city officials in March approved the first batch of funds — which amounts to $400,000 — in a program offering reparations to Black residents whose families have been affected by decades of discriminatory housing practices. The move made Evanston the first local community in the country to launch a reparations program for Black people.

Robin Rue, a former Evanston council member who heads the city’s reparations committee, said the city will fund the program with sales tax generated from recreational marijuana. Black residents will be eligible for up to $25,000 in housing grants to help purchase a home, pay off a mortgage or renovate a home. Applicants must only be able to prove that they lived in Evanston between 1919-1969, which is before a fair housing ordinance was passed, or that they are a descendant of someone who was, Rue said.

“I have a lived experience understanding the barriers, the disparities, the divide between access to capital and information and opportunity in Evanston,” Rue said. “It was appropriate that we advance reparations in Evanston because we celebrate diversity and inclusion… but we still are absolutely segregated both physically by race and economically.”

The program has garnered criticism from some residents who say there are too many restrictions on the funds and that it doesn’t protect Black residents from racial discrimination by banks and real estate companies who are involved in process. Other critics say a housing voucher program is not the proper way to award reparations.

In Rosewood, the scholarship fund has proven to have the most long-term success in the last 27 years. At least 297 students have received the Rosewood scholarship since 1994, according to a 2020 report by The Washington Post.

Some of those students have attended Florida A&M University, a historically Black institution.

“Money is often how we make it up to people, it’s one of the ways you try to make someone whole,” said Martha Barnett, a retired Tallahassee-based attorney who was representing about 12 Rosewood massacre survivors when the 1994 bill was passed. “Money for their property, money for the lost opportunity to live a good life. They lost the opportunity to have their first, second generation of kids benefit from the middle class life they had created.”

Nationwide momentum grows

Across the nation, states, cities, organizations and universities are considering and executing their own ideas for reparations.

California has launched a task force to recommend reparations for descendants of slaves after state lawmakers approved legislation last year to create the panel. The task force met for the first time earlier this week.

The Virginia Theological Seminary is giving out cash payments to descendants of Black people who worked there during the slavery and Jim Crows eras.

Students at Brown University and the University of Georgia among others across the country are demanding that colleges pay reparations to descendants of enslaved people who worked on campus and atone for destroying Black communities to build their campuses.

In Louisville, a person who discovered their great-grandfather was a slave owner in Kentucky gave a six-figure reparations payment to a Black-led nonprofit.

‘Do the right thing’

Heath said reparations for Tulsa massacre survivors and their descendants are long overdue.

She said while many Tulsa massacre survivors and their families lost homes and businesses in the attack, the psychological damage has been even greater.

Heath said the survivors are carrying the burden of painful memories and trauma that is getting passed down through generations.

Reparations in the form of financial payments for survivors and their descendants are a critical step to repairing this psychological damage, Heath said. The Rosewood massacre reparations program proves that reparations for massacre survivors can be achieved, she said.

There also needs to be land reallocation to Black families and targeted investment in housing, health, education and transportation, Heath said.

“It’s absolutely shameful that the city has sat on this for 100 years,” Heath said. “If they’d just take the steps to do the right thing, we wouldn’t even be having a conversation about a lawsuit.”

Black Tulsans have ‘waited too long’

Simmons, the survivors’ attorney, said in an interview with CNN last month that he believes the current legal battle is different from previous complaints because Tulsa has now emerged into the national spotlight and there is heightened attention on reparations and racial equality.

Before now, people across the country “didn’t understand the magnitude of what was lost, what was destroyed, the $200 million in property damage, the countless lives, etc.,” Simmons told CNN’s Abby Phillip. “We understand, now, our environment, we have a moment in history that a lot of people of goodwill, millions of people in goodwill, want to see this country move towards racial equity, move towards doing what’s right for Black people.”

Simmons said he wants to see reparations in the form of financial compensation to the survivors and their descendants, scholarships, and investment in Black businesses and the Black community.

“The Justice for Greenwood Foundation, whose board includes descendants and community members, has already established a fund,” Simmons said.

The foundation announced Thursday that it was gifting $100,000 to each survivor of the massacre.

One survivor, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, told Phillip that she had little hope Tulsa would ever pay reparations to her and other Tulsa massacre survivors.

However, she said “I think it would be fair for the City to do that because so many people lost their homes and all of their belongings and everything.”

City officials are also lobbying for reparations.

Tulsa City Council chairwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper said she believes paying reparations should be a priority right now. The country, she said, can address reparations while working to root out systemic racism at the same time.

“We (have) waited too long,” Hall-Harper told CNN’s Erin Burnett. “Tulsa has waited for 100 years.”

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