Nearing Her 109th Birthday, and Still Waiting for Her Day in Court
"Lessie Benningfield Randle survived the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Her lawyers are making what they say is a final bid to keep her case alive.
For more than a century, Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of the last known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, has lived with the searing details of that spring. For decades, she has recalled the fire that ravaged her neighborhood, Greenwood, and the frantic trip with her grandmother to the safety of a fairground.
Ms. Randle’s 109th birthday is Friday. She was 6 years old when a white mob attacked Greenwood with indiscriminate violence that wrought death and destruction and erased much of the promise of economic stability for future generations.
Over a century, Ms. Randle witnessed the Second World War, the civil rights movement and the election of the United States’ first Black president, and pondered if the people of her neighborhood would ever see some kind of justice. She and the only other known survivor, Viola Fletcher, 109, are united in a historic legal battle to force the City of Tulsa and others to answer for the massacre.
“I would like to see justice. It’s past time. I would like to see this all cleared up and we go down the right road,” Ms. Randle said in an interview from her Tulsa residence. “But I do not know if I will ever see that.”
On Monday, a team of lawyers representing Ms. Randle, Ms. Fletcher and the estate of Hughes Van Ellis — the younger brother of Ms. Fletcher who died at 102 last month — took what they consider to be the last legal step in their long quest for justice.
They filed a final brief to the Oklahoma Supreme Court to consider whether an earlier dismissal by a district court judge, Caroline Wall, was proper. Should the court affirm the lower court’s dismissal, the case would be over. If the lower court’s ruling is reversed, the case would proceed.
The legal team, joined by Ms. Fletcher and her family members, discussed the urgency of case in front of the courthouse in Oklahoma City.
“Everybody understands this could be the last hurrah for these survivors to try to get justice,” Damario Solomon-Simmons, the civil rights lawyer leading the lawsuit, said in an interview.
Ending the case without a trial, he said, would be a low point in the fight for racial justice.
“It stands for the proposition that people can be bombed from the sky, burned out of their homes, murdered, have all their belongings taken and literally, nothing that can be done about it,” Mr. Solomon-Simmons said. “It says, Hey, we can do this with impunity.”
State and city officials have said they cannot be held responsible for events that occurred over a century ago. In court documents, Kevin McClure, an assistant attorney general for Oklahoma, wrote that survivors “failed to properly allege” how the Oklahoma agencies could be responsible.
The massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history, started with an accusation. On May 31, 1921, a white mob gathered outside a county courthouse where Dick Rowland, a young Black man, was being held over allegations that he had assaulted a young white woman.
The rioters, including men deputized by the civil officials, eventually descended on Greenwood, a neighborhood so self-reliant that it had become known as Black Wall Street. Within two days it was gone, 35 blocks burned to the ground. Neighbors were dead or missing. Buildings were reduced to rubble. The toll was staggering: up to 300 dead, at least 8,000 suddenly homeless and nearly 1,500 homes burned or looted.
Mr. Rowland was exonerated, but no one was ever held responsible for the massacre and no survivors were ever compensated for their losses. The survivors have never told their stories in court.
At the time, the city covered up what had happened and many survivors didn’t talk about it.
In the mid-1980s, LaDonna Penny, 51, a granddaughter of Ms. Randle, convinced her to share her experience. She began to speak more about it in the years that followed as the momentum for redress grew. And in 2021, Ms. Randle was among the few survivors who testified before a House subcommittee considering reparations. Her statement read, in part:
“My community was beautiful and was filled with happy and successful Black people. Then everything changed. It was like a war. White men with guns came and destroyed my community. We couldn’t understand why. What did we do to them? We didn’t understand. We were just living. But they came, and they destroyed everything.”
She added: “I remember running outside of our house. I ran past dead bodies. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I still see it today in my mind — 100 years later.”
Ms. Randle, affectionately called Mother Randle by friends and family, spent most of her life in Tulsa and worked as a caretaker for seniors. She said the memories of the massacre come rushing back occasionally, though some of the details are lost to time. But what she remembers still makes her “sad and mad.”
“It comes across your mind. Not pleasant at all. And then you think of some things that could have been done to stop what happened,” she said, her soft voice giving way to silence.
In 2020, a few months after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer had forced what many believed would be a national reckoning on racial injustice, the lawsuit was filed under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law. It makes the argument that the massacre’s effects didn’t end in 1921, but had continued more than 100 years and three generations later. As evidence, the lawyers point to the city’s enduring racial disparities, economic inequalities and the long-held trauma among survivors and their descendants.
Judge Wall, who had ruled the case could proceed in May 2022, dismissed the case with prejudice this July, meaning that it could be taken up only by a higher court. Lawyers for the city argued that “simply being connected to a historical event does not provide a person with unlimited rights to seek compensation from any project in any way related to that historical event.”
In August, the Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of the lower court’s dismissal.
“The fundamental point is we should be able to proceed under the law if you actually apply the law to the facts,” said Randall T. Adams, a litigation partner at Schulte Roth & Zabel. “We should get a chance to prove the case.”