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. She and the only other known survivor, Viola Fletcher, 109, are now united in a historic legal battle to force the City of Tulsa and others to answer for the massacre, the New York Times reports. “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,” 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 Randle, Fletcher and the estate of Hughes Van Ellis — the younger brother of 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. “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.
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, 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. Ending the case without a trial, Solomon-Simmons 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,’’ he 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.