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Survivors of Black Wall Street Massacre Challenge Tulsa’s Atonement Strategy

Three plaintiffs, all over 100 years old, say the 1921 destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood has harmed the wealth and well-being of Black residents to this day. The city has tried three times to dismiss their lawsuit.

Survivor Viola Fletcher attends a soil dedication ceremony for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31, 2021. She is one of three survivors suing the city.

Survivor Viola Fletcher attends a soil dedication ceremony for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31, 2021. She is one of three survivors suing the city.

Photographer: Christian Monterrosa/Bloomberg

In 1921, a mob of white residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, including police, burned down the nearly 40-acre African American Greenwood neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street” — then one of the wealthiest Black communities in the US. There’s some dispute about how it started — an unfounded rumor of a Black man either offending or assaulting a white woman — but there is no dispute how it ended: with hundreds of Black Tulsans killed and thousands more displaced.

More than 100 years later, the city of Tulsa is still coming to terms with those past sins and how to atone for them. A lawsuit filed in 2020 on behalf of three survivors of the massacre is asking the city, and several other authorities, to pay reparations for the destruction of Greenwood in 1921 and the social maladies that residents still suffer from today as a result. Under a novel “public nuisance” complaint, the plaintiffs argue that the massacre is responsible for Tulsa’s current racial disparities, and also allege that the city has been enriching itself by turning massacre sites into “tourist attractions.”