Sitting in a small meeting room in a Unitarian Universalist church slightly north of downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, people of different races and age groups have gathered. Between bites of doughnuts and sips of coffee, they strategize about their next move, every now and then scribbling ideas with red and green markers on white paper flip charts. “Tie riot in with September 11 as an act of terrorism,” reads one line on the “Objectives” list. “Circumvent local politicians and officials by filing a class-action lawsuit,” reads the line below it.
Members of the Tulsa Reparations Coalition had hoped they wouldn’t be at this place again–square one. After all, the State of Oklahoma had put together a commission to study the matter nearly five years before, and in 2001 it recommended that the state make reparations to the 130 survivors of what some call the worst race riot in US history–the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. More than 300 blacks were killed and 10,000 left homeless after a mob of white deputies and Oklahoma National Guardsmen descended on the all-black Greenwood section of Tulsa, burning everything in sight. “Reparations were promised by civic and city leaders of the time but did not come through,” says State Representative Don Ross, whose district encompasses Greenwood.
Instead, last spring the state decided to establish committees to establish a race riot memorial, as well as a scholarship and a community development fund for this underdeveloped, mostly black area known as North Tulsa. “Those were the concepts that were politically possible,” Ross says. But the state didn’t put any money into any of the committees, Ross confirms, adding that “some private funds have been raised.”
Subsequently, the state denied that the report assigned it any responsibility–even though the report made it clear that city sheriffs deputized people who participated and implied that a unit of the state militia was involved in detaining blacks. “I have carefully reviewed the finding of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and, contrary to the statement in your letter, I do not believe that it assigns culpability for the riot to the state,” wrote Governor Frank Keating in an October 2001 letter to the Tulsa Reparations Coalition. He further noted that a state law prohibits Oklahoma from making reparations for any past mass crime committed by its officials or on the state’s behalf.
What’s left to do? “Sue,” says Mark Stodghill, the head of the Reparations Coalition. To that end, Stodghill’s group has organized a legal committee, which is exploring the possibility of filing a lawsuit against Tulsa that would challenge the existing law and seek reparations. “Time has run out and the survivors are dying,” says Stodghill, a Tulsa native who works as an investigator in the city’s human rights office. He says that people in Oklahoma don’t talk about reparations, because it comes too close to broaching the topic of racism, one that many Tulsans stay as far away from as possible. But blatant racism is exactly what Stodghill and the group want to bring to the table. While members believe a memorial will help Tulsans remember the riot, they say it won’t pay the debt Tulsa owes the black survivors. Ironically, a memorial probably won’t help any of the white citizens remember the riot, because very few of them ever set foot on the north side of Interstate 244, the dividing line between the white and black parts of town.