'A Day of Reckoning'

It ranks among the nation's worst incidents of racial violence. And while more than 80 years have passed since it convulsed their city, its remaining survivors are still determined to have their day in court. Five African-Americans who lived through the 1921 Tulsa race riot--men and women with more than 450 years between them--were in Washington yesterday, mingling with hundreds of visitors on the majestic steps of the U.S. Supreme Court as their lawyers filed a brief petitioning the justices to allow their lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma to go forward.

The suit, Alexander, et al, v. Oklahoma, et al., is one of a number of cases around the country seeking reparations for racially based harms committed in the past. Another case, currently on file in federal court in Chicago, seeks what could be billions in compensation from banking and insurance companies and other corporations. The Oklahoma lawsuit is seeking no financial payments to survivors or their families, instead asking for the establishment of educational and health-care resources for current residents of Greenwood, an African-American neighborhood that was completely destroyed in the riots.

Undaunted by the rulings of lower courts that they had waited too long to file their suit, the five survivors held a brief vigil in front of the Supreme Court while their attorneys filed the paperwork that they hope will bring them justice they feel has been long denied. A nondescript minivan deposited them on the sidewalk in front of the court, where they huddled against a frigid wind, surrounded by supporters. Although they were unsure of foot, gray-headed and frail, there was no mistaking the resolve in their eyes.

Legalese and the finer points of appellate law are lost on 88-year-old Wes Young, so he stated his case in simple English. "My family lost everything we had," Young told NEWSWEEK. "We were completely burned out." His story only hints at the extent of the madness that wracked Greenwood on May 31 and June 1, 1921. It began when an African-American bootblack named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a white elevator operator named Sarah Page. Rowland was arrested, and rumors that he would be lynched soon spread. A confrontation ensued between blacks and whites in front of the courthouse where Rowland was being held, and a shot rang out. By the next morning, scores of African-Americans had been driven from their homes; an unknown number--perhaps as many as 300, by some estimates--were dead; the entire black neighborhood of Greenwood and a business district so vibrant it was known as the "Negro Wall Street" had been razed, and thousands of victims were left homeless. In the aftermath of the destruction, more than 100 Greenwood residents unsuccessfully filed lawsuits attempting to recover damages. A grand jury convened to determine the cause of the riot actually faulted the city's African-American residents for, among other things, "believ[ing] in equal rights, social equality, and their ability to demand the same."

Despite its harsh toll, the Tulsa race riot received little attention until recently. So completely had it faded from the historical record that Tulsa Mayor Bill Lafortune said in 1996, "I was born and raised here, and I had never heard of the riot." Not until 2001, when a commission to investigate the riot created by the Oklahoma state legislature issued its report, was the enormity of the riot, and the central role city and state officials played in fomenting it, finally made clear. According to the report, as tensions rose to dangerous levels in the hours before the riot, municipal and county officials "failed to take actions to calm or contain the situation." After violence erupted, hundreds of white men deputized by the police department armed themselves and rampaged through Greenwood. Members of the Oklahoma National Guard, called in to help quell the violence, instead arrested every African-American they could find, leaving a mob of whites free to loot and burn 42 square blocks of Greenwood's African-American homes, businesses, schools and churches.

After the report was published, a group of 150 riot survivors and their descendants, represented by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, sued the state of Oklahoma, the city of Tulsa, the city's police department and its police chief. A district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit both found that given the country's racial climate in 1921, and the paucity of information available about government involvement in the riots, the case qualified for an extension of Oklahoma's two-year statute of limitations for the filing of civil lawsuits. But both courts said that the case still should have been filed earlier; by the 1960s or 1980s at the latest. Ogletree said that it wasn't until publication of the commission's report in 2001 that his clients had enough information to know who was responsible.

The Supreme Court has 20 days to respond to the petition filed Wednesday, and time is of the essence. In the two years since the lawsuit was filed, 24 of the survivors named in the lawsuit have died, and their number is steadily dwindling. But Wes Young, along with Robert Holloway, 86; Otis Granville Clark, 102; Thelma Thurman Knight, 89, and Genevieve Jackson, 89, seem determined to hold out as long as it takes. "There's going to be a great day of reckoning one of these days," said Young.