Reparations for the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

Posted January 7th, 2013 by
Category: Repair and reparations Tags: , , , ,

Tulsa Race Riot of 1921Tulsa Race Riot of 1921Last week, we reported that Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) had re-introduced before Congress his bill, H.R. 40, to establish a commission to study reparations for slavery and racial discrimination.

Today we write to say that Rep. Conyers has also re-introduced legislation to provide reparations for the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot and their descendants.

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is generally considered to be the worst single incident of racial violence in the history of the United States.1 The riot devastated the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a prosperous, racially-segregated community that had been called the “Negro Wall Street” of the United States.

Sparked by rumors that a young black man would be targeted by a lynch mob, an armed confrontation between black and white crowds led to thousands of white citizens rampaging through Greenwood, killing, burning, and looting. The National Guard had to be dispatched to restore order, jailing 4,000 to 5,000 black men and women for days while leaving white rioters alone. In the end, thirty-five blocks were entirely destroyed and anywhere from 45 to 300 people lost their lives. No one was convicted for acts of murder, arson, or larceny during the riot, and more than 100 lawsuits filed afterwards by black residents of Greenwood were rejected.

In 2001, the bipartisan Tulsa Race Riot Commission examined the historical record and recommended reparations payments for survivors of the riots and their descendants. The Oklahoma state legislature responded by establishing scholarships, a  memorial, and economic development for Greenwood, but declined to offer reparations. In 2003, a group of survivors filed a lawsuit, Alexander v. State of Oklahoma with the aid of Charles Ogletree and Johnnie Cochran, seeking relief in the form of education and healthcare for Greenwood residents. The courts, however, rejected this lawsuit, on the basis that the statute of limitations now bars any relief.

Rep. Conyers’ bill, H.R. 98, would overturn the result in Alexander v. State of Oklahoma, providing a remedy in court for anyone deprived of their rights on account of race in the riot or its aftermath.

In remarks in the Congressional Record introducing the legislation, Rep. Conyers noted:

The case of the Tulsa-Greenwood Riot victims is worthy of congressional attention because substantial evidence suggests that governmental officials deputized and armed the mob and that the National Guard joined in the destruction. The report commissioned by the Oklahoma State Legislature in 1997, and published in 2001, uncovered new information and detailed, for the first time, the extent of the involvement by the State and city government in prosecuting and erasing evidence of the riot. This new evidence was crucial for the formulation of a substantial case, but its timeliness raised issues at law, and resulted in a dismissal on statute of limitation grounds. In dismissing the survivor’s claims, however, the Court found that extraordinary circumstances might support extending the statute of limitations, but that Congress did not establish rules applicable to the case at bar. With this legislation, we have the opportunity to provide closure for a group of claimants–many over 100 years old–and to close the book on a tragic chapter in history.

Racism, and its violent manifestations, are part of our Nation’s past that we cannot avoid. With the prosecution of historic civil rights claims, both civil and criminal, we encourage a process of truth and reconciliation that can heal historic wounds. In this case, the Court took “no great comfort” in finding that there was no legal avenue through which the plaintiffs could bring their claims. The “Tulsa-Greenwood Riot Accountability Act” would simply give Tulsans and all Oklahomans, white and black, victims and non-victims, their day in court. Without that opportunity, we will all continue to be victims of our past.

H.R. 98 is to be named the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Riot Accountability Act, in honor of the eminent historian who painstakingly documented the Tulsa Race Riots. The bill, bearing the short description, “To provide a remedy for survivors and descendants of the victims of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Riot of 1921,” has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

The same legislation in the last Congress attracted one co-sponsor, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and died in committee without action.

  1. See, for instance, the Oklahoma Historical Society’s online Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture at []

8 Responses to “Reparations for the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921”

  1. Ken Says:

    My understanding of this event was that in spite of jim crow laws that made things separate the african American business community was making things “equal”. Despite the immediate trigger the fact that local african American business’s had just won some state and /or county and/or city contracts and that the established white business’s were unhappy about losing what they considered to be “Their” customers.

    This brings me to a point of why hasn’t people gone after the insurance companies that had been paid by residents but refused to pay because of a “civil disorder” clause?

    During this period it seems like there had been a pogram carried out against african American communities that were aicheveing economic and/or social parity with their caucasian neighbors.

    Tulsa, Harlem, community in Florida that was burnt out and other events. Among the many unfortunate similiarities was the insurance companies unwillingness to pay out on policies that had been bought.

    Why hasn’t the NAACP or other similiar legal organizations targeted the insurance companies on this issue?

  2. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Ken, I believe that organizations like the NAACP have tried to get insurance companies to pay claims arising from the Tulsa riot and other acts of mob violence against black citizens during this era. However, as you correctly note, policies like these typically excluded claims arising out of civil violence.

    For instance, a typical insurance policy in Oklahoma at the time contained the following exclusion:

    "This company shall not be liable for loss caused directly or indirectly by invasion, insurrection, riot, civil war or commotion …."

    In general, insurance companies took the position that this was, indeed, a riot, and the courts upheld this position. As a result, many insurance claims by black residents were denied after the riot, and the survivors were forced to seek remedies from the perpetrators or from government officials and agencies which colluded in the violence.

  3. Luke A. Martin Says:

    But there was a white store owner who was paid for damages cause to his store by white rioters. Now look that up its a fact. We all know the true nature of this even stop sugar coating it.

  4. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Yes, a white store owner, Mr. Magee, was paid compensation. It wasn't by the insurance companies, though, but by the Tulsa City Council, which managed to pay his claim but to deny the many similar claims from black citizens. If anything, I'd say this was much worse; at least the insurance companies just wanted to minimize their losses, regardless of race, by refusing any claim they could.

  5. Ken Says:

    Sorry for dilitory response but just found your response.

    I appreciate your response but in light of the settlements from banks and insurance made towards the survivors and families of the Holocaust, even though many of the actions taken were under the cover of “legitimate” governmental laws and actions so why cannot the same be done for the families and survivors of these outrages?

    I understand that insurance companies main objective is to avoid paying any claims but if it can be shown that any employees or agents of the insurance companies participaited in, encouraged or aided the roiters in any manner at all would not those clauses vanish?

    From what limited history I have read the heaads of insurance companies of that era had more then their fair share of racists ( inane phrase what is fair about racism) who were not shy about expressing their views.

    Would this not nullify the legal fig leaf they hide behind?

  6. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    I'm certainly sympathetic, Ken, to the view that the survivors ought to have received compensation. As to whether the insurance companies ought to have paid out, I think it's clear that the terms of the insurance policies really, truly weren't intended to cover situations like this (riots, civic disorder, war, etc.). That's fairly standard, and it's been quite rare to see insurance companies pay out for situations their policies don't cover.

    So I would much rather that there had been government compensation for these losses, since the government played a substantial role in causing the losses, and since, in any event, our governments often step up and provide compensation when victims have suffered outrageous losses, even when the government isn't at fault (and often when no one is, such as after suitable natural disasters).

    The insurance companies, by contrast, weren't at fault here, even if they may have had officers and employees who were racist or supported the rioters in their personal capacities. By that logic, many other companies would be on the hook for the actions of their own officers and employees during the riot, too; why single out insurance companies?

    It would be very different, in my mind, if insurance companies wrote policies that seemed to cover situations like this, and then searched for legal loopholes to avoid paying claims to black policyholders. Or if they typically paid such claims to white policyholders, or in similar situations not involving race-related violence. Our country's history is full of such selective applications of laws, policies, and practices, but in this case, where that's not happening, I would lean on the responsible parties and then on the government to make victims whole.

  7. mr. thomas Says:

    My grand mother had land taken from her during the would I go about locating her land

  8. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Mr. Thomas, I would suggest that you reach out to the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation (, and see what advice they might be able to offer. The Center is a national organization based in Tulsa, and it has a local as well as a national focus. I don't know whether they would have any specific resources for you to get started, but they might be your best bet as far as locating someone who can advise you. And good luck!

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