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Panel recommends reparations for survivors of Tulsa race riots

A proposal to pay 80 survivors of the 1921 rampage could face an uphill battle in the conservative Legislature.

Nearly 80 years after marauding white mobs destroyed a thriving section of this city, then nicknamed the "Negro Wall Street," and killed up to 300 black residents, Oklahoma took the first step Friday in compensating survivors in what ultimately could be recorded as the worst race riot in U.S. history.

The 11-member Tulsa 1921 Race Riot Commission, appointed by the state legislature two years ago to uncover details about the episode, recommended that Oklahoma pay reparations to the 80 survivors _ now in their 80s and 90s _ whose family members were killed or lost their homes and livelihood during the rampage on May 31 and June 1, 1921.

Commission members, acknowledging the reparations could cost as much as $33-million, put no dollar figure in their recommendation, leaving the matter to the legislature. Under their plan, Oklahoma would pay survivors and the descendants of deceased victims, establish a scholarship fund for students from the riot area, set aside an enterprise zone for black businesses and erect a monument.

But officials said it remains uncertain whether any victims will see a penny of state money. Indeed, opinion polls indicate that 57 percent of Oklahomans are not in favor of reparations for riot victims; such a proposal will likely face an uphill battle in the largely conservative state legislature.

Still, the recommendation gives survivors and other black Tulsans a psychological boost in acknowledging their losses and the culpability of the state and local governments. The decision puts the riot victims in the same category as the Jews in Nazi Germany, American Indians, Japanese-Americans held in U.S. concentration camps during World War II and black victims in Rosewood, Fla., people who have been financially compensated for their sufferings.

"I was only seven years old when they burned our house down; we lost everything," said Annie Beaird, 86. "I didn't think they would ever do anything about it. I think it would make me feel better to get a little something. Anything is better than nothing."

Sparked by the imprisonment of a black man falsely accused of attempting to rape a white woman, the riot destroyed more than 1,000 homes, 35 stores, eight doctors offices and five motels in the black section of Tulsa called Greenwood or the Negro Wall Street.

The official tally in 1921 of riot victims was around 30. But, despite a widespread coverup of the riot and the expunging of records, stories have persisted that perhaps hundreds of blacks died. To get a true account, the commission in the last two years has interviewed hundreds of witnesses and victims.

Yet it has been unable to answer two crucial questions: How many people died and what are their identities? Only a handful of victims have been identified. Because bodies may have been tossed in the Arkansas River, incinerated and buried in mine shafts, the commission may never get a full accounting.

Based on newly discovered records and the recollection of witnesses and survivors, however, the commission has learned fresh details about the riot: The police and sheriff's departments that night deputized and gave badges to many of the white civilians who were involved in the shooting, burning and looting of Greenwood. Many of the elected officials, law enforcement authorities and other Tulsa community leaders then belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.

And despite promises from the city's riot reconstruction committee in the 1920s that blacks would be fully compensated for their losses, all claims were denied.

Commission members said Friday that precedent for reparations had been set by Florida's action in 1994 in establishing a $2-million fund to compensate survivors of the 1923 mob violence in Rosewood, where eight blacks were killed.

"The role of the city (of Tulsa) in failing to protect Greenwood residents and property and in making the riot worse counsels in favor of reparations," said Alfred Brophy, a professor at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, who is working with the commission to help document the losses and offering a legal justification for the financial payments.

"There were promises to rebuild the Greenwood community," he added. "The promises demonstrate a recognition . . . that the victims have a moral claim to reparations."

By law, the commission was supposed to go out of business Friday even though it is several months away from writing a final report. A bill is expected to be introduced Monday to extend the commission's term indefinitely.

Thus far, the reparations idea has generated lukewarm support in the state legislature, even though Republican Gov. Frank Keating and five black state lawmakers favor it.

Opponents say Oklahoma can ill afford the extra expense, and many have also questioned whether today's taxpayers should be penalized for misdeeds of the past.

"I have a big problem with reparations. Will that solve what we're looking at?" said Republican state Sen. Robert Milacek, one of two riot commission members who voted Friday against reparations.