Lessie Benningfield Randle and Viola Ford Fletcher, both 109, went to the Oklahoma Supreme Court Tuesday afternoon to appeal the dismissal of their lawsuit against the city of Tulsa for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

“We are grateful that our now-weary bodies held out long enough to witness an America, and an Oklahoma, that offers survivors of the Race Massacre the opportunity to access the legal system,” Randle and Fletcher, the last survivors of the incident, said in a joint statement on Tuesday. “Many came before us who knocked and knocked on the courthouse doors only to be turned away or never let through.”

Survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis sing at a rally for the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 2021 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The lawsuit, filed against the city, seeks redress for Randle and Fletcher for injuries, public nuisance and unjust enrichment others gained from exploiting the massacre, according to court documents.

Lawyers for the victims and their families make the legal argument that there is an ongoing “public nuisance” in the Greenwood community that began because of the massacre more than 100 years ago.

During Tuesday's hearing, lawyers for city officials argued that the state's high court should dismiss the case because they say the survivors have not demonstrated that there was a violation of any “public right” that would allow a legal claim of a public nuisance. .

“The destruction of buildings, homes and businesses is certainly unjust and tragic, but it is technically an aggregate of private rights,” said Garry Gaskins, attorney general for the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office, during Tuesday's hearing. “Although large numbers of people may have been injured during the Tulsa Race Massacre, the destruction of buildings, homes and businesses does not meet the definition of a public good such as air, water or public right-of-way.”

The state's highest court did not announce a decision Tuesday or say when it would reach it. Lawyers for the last two survivors point out that if the court doesn't make a decision soon, Tuesday's hearings could be Randle and Fletcher's last court appearance and opportunity to seek justice, given their advanced age.

In July, the lawsuit was dismissed in Tulsa District Court by Judge Caroline Wall, meaning the case could not be refiled. The court's ruling on the appeal could potentially change that.

In this 1921 image provided by the Library of Congress, clouds of smoke over Tulsa, Okla.

Alvin C. Krupnick Co./Library of Congress via AP, Archive

“To be clear, the struggle facing Mother Fletcher and Mother Randle is more than just Black Wall Street. It is the right of every person in Oklahoma to be assured that if they are ever abused, deceived or exploited, they will have a reasonable opportunity to prove their case in court,” said Damario Solomon-Simmons, lead attorney for survivors. . , said in a statement. “This is what every American deserves and it is what the city of Tulsa, one of the main culprits of the Tulsa Race Massacre, is trying to take away.”

Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, white residents of Tulsa burned and bombed several city blocks, including the Greenwood District, which was known as Black Wall Street, because of its successful stores and businesses owned by black residents of Tulsa. Tulsa.

An estimated 300 black residents were killed and thousands were left homeless after the Tulsa massacre, according to historians.

Fletcher's younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, was the third plaintiff when the lawsuit was originally filed in 2020. He died last fall at age 102.

Although the Oklahoma Supreme Court did not make a ruling Tuesday, Justice Yvonne Kauger praised the plaintiffs for their dedicated fight for justice.

“When I went to high school, I knew about the trail of tears. I knew why Chief Porter wanted the ban in the Constitution, but Greenwood was never mentioned,” she said. “So I think that regardless of what happens, you should all be commended for making sure this never happens again. It will be in the history books.”

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