Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle turns 109 amid high-stakes reparations fight

Tulsa, Oklahoma - Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle is celebrating her 109th birthday as calls for reparations remain unanswered.

Over a century after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Lessie Benningfield Randle (r.) is fighting for accountability and repair alongside fellow survivor Viola Ford Fletcher (c.). Both women are 109 years old.
Over a century after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Lessie Benningfield Randle (r.) is fighting for accountability and repair alongside fellow survivor Viola Ford Fletcher (c.). Both women are 109 years old.  © IMAGO / USA TODAY Network

Lessie Benningfield Randle, known to family and friends as "Mother Randle," was just six years old when a mob of white-supremacist law enforcement officers and deputized civilians waged a brutal assault on Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood, known as Black Wall Street.

Randle fled with her grandmother as the perpetrators torched buildings and homes and dropped bombs on the community from World War I-issue planes over May 31-June 1, 1921. More than 300 Black residents were murdered in cold blood in the attacks.

Authorities immediately sought to cover up the atrocities by destroying police records and depositing bodies in unmarked mass graves. In spite of those efforts, Tulsa's Greenwood community has refused to allow their story to be buried.

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Today, the Tulsa Race Massacre is known as one of the worst acts of racial terror in US history, but this recognition has not come with any form of compensation for the survivors or their descendants.

Failure to atone for the past and continued anti-Black policies have led to stark racial disparities in Tulsa across wealth, education, employment, housing, health, and the criminal legal system.

Lessie Benningfield Randle's ongoing fight for reparations

Lessie Benningfield Randle's birthday has sparked renewed calls for a swift ruling from the Oklahoma Supreme Court to allow the survivors' reparations lawsuit to go to trial.
Lessie Benningfield Randle's birthday has sparked renewed calls for a swift ruling from the Oklahoma Supreme Court to allow the survivors' reparations lawsuit to go to trial.  © MANDEL NGAN / AFP

Randle has been witness to the stunning resilience of the Greenwood community over the last century and refuses to let advanced years stop her quest for justice.

Along with fellow survivors Viola Ford Fletcher (109) and recently deceased Hughes Van Ellis (102), Randle launched a historic lawsuit in 2020 seeking restitution for the horrors she endured as a child and in the years since. The case relies on the state's long-standing public nuisance law, allowing the plaintiffs to avert potential issues over the statute of limitations for damages – a tool used to negate previous claims for redress.

In July, conservative District Court Judge Caroline Wall sparked outrage when she decided to dismiss the lawsuit. The Oklahoma Supreme Court in August agreed to review an appeal and is due to rule on whether the survivors will finally get their day in court after more than 102 years of denial.

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The urgency of a swift decision from the Oklahoma Supreme Court cannot be overstated given Randle and Fletcher's age.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if the court gave [Mother Randle] the greatest birthday gift she's ever had so far by ruling on this case this week and allowing us to move forward?" attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons said in a Monday news conference in Oklahoma City.

"I know that's what she wants more than anything for her 109th birthday," he added.

Cover photo: IMAGO / USA TODAY Network

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