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1921 Race Riot Panel Urges Redress

February 5, 2000

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ When the state Legislature appointed a commission to study one of the nation’s deadliest, but little-known race riots, Veneice Dunn Sims didn’t expect much more than a lot of rhetoric.

So news that the committee recommended reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot came as a very welcomed surprise.

``Well, all right!″ the 94-year-old riot survivor said Friday. ``I didn’t think anything was going to happen! How long has it been? ... What, 79 years!″

After two years of meetings, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended Friday that direct payments be made to survivors and descendants of riot victims.

The 11-member panel also called for a memorial to the dead, scholarships and a tax checkoff program to fund economic development in the Greenwood district, where the 1921 rampage by a white Tulsa mob killed as many as 300 people, most of them black.

``I asked myself, ’What would I want if my life was basically destroyed,‴ commission member Vivian Clark said in favor of payments to survivors. ``The country has a problem as a whole in giving compensations to African Americans.″

The commission recommended that the direct payments be a priority.

``This way we will be helping people first, which is what we are supposed to be doing,″ said commission member Jim Lloyd, who is white.

About a half-dozen of the 80 known riot survivors watched as the commission heard personal accounts, newspaper stories and a subcommittee recommendation before approving the reparations.

There were no specifics on who would get the scholarships. It also wasn’t decided how much the reparations package should cost and who should make the payments.

But the commission passed a resolution that said the racial hatred then was tolerated through laws of local, state and federal governments and said restitution would be good public policy and help repair the emotional and physical scars of the riot.

``This is a government issue. Let the government solve it,″ said commission member Eddie Faye Gates, who is black.

The commission’s recommendations will be presented to the Legislature on Monday, which was the deadline for a preliminary report.

Historical findings also will be handed over with hope that the Legislature will continue the commission indefinitely, Chairman Bob Blackburn said.

``We’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions _ a lot to pursue,″ said Blackburn, who is white.

The riot broke out May 31, 1921, when a white lynch mob clashed with blacks who were protecting a black man accused of assaulting a white elevator operator.

Over two days, white mobs set fire to homes, businesses and churches in Greenwood, a thriving black business district known at the time as the Black Wall Street of America. When the smoke cleared, the area lay in ruins.

Many blacks left and never returned. The National Guard rounded up thousands of others and held them at the fairgrounds, convention hall and a baseball stadium.

The commission, which included a survivor, historians, lawmakers and community members, held meetings for two years and agreed that it may be impossible to get a complete, accurate account of what happened.

There is uncertainty over such things as how many died, whether a Tulsa cemetery holds mass graves, and what role the National Guard played.

On Friday, some in the crowd shouted and others let out a low ``no, no, no″ when white Democratic state Rep. Abe Deutschendorf recalled a riot survivor’s account that the National Guard saved his life.

For decades, the city ignored the riot. It was only in 1996 that it recognized its anniversary. The next year, the Legislature created the commission when Tulsa lawmakers raised the issue of restitution.

For Genevieve Elizabeth Tillman Jackson, an 84-year-old black woman who survived the riot, the panel’s recommendation was a long time coming.

``It’s great,″ she said. ``I think the survivors should be helped, and the children of survivors.″

In 1994, Florida set the precedent in reparations by paying up to $150,000 to survivors of a 1923 attack on blacks in Rosewood, Fla.

In Arkansas, historians and residents are holding a conference next week to discuss a major race riot in 1919 at Elaine, Ark. The death toll has been put at anywhere from 20 to 200.

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