BY AMOS JONES
WASHINGTON – Last year marked a milestone confrontation in Black Americans’ quest for racial justice, and Harvard Law people were deeply involved. As we enter Black History Month, it is appropriate to pay attention to what took place before the highest court in the land.
On March 9, a group of survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot led by then-102-year-old Otis Clark filed a petition with the Supreme Court of the United States so that their claims against the Oklahoma state official entities responsible for the cataclysmic act of terrorism might be heard. The issues raised by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree and his interracial team of highly regarded lawyers exposed yet unresolved federal law on statutes of limitations, which stalled the case in the lower federal courts governing Oklahoma. The Supreme Court eventually denied certiorari.
An Act of Terror
On May 31, 1921, a White mob gathered to exact retribution on the Black community in the Greenwood section of Tulsa for its defense of Dick Rowland, a Black man rumored to have raped a white woman. In actuality, he accidentally stepped on her foot while exiting an elevator. She slapped him. The rape accusation led roving gangs of angry white men to attack the Black community, known for its prosperity and business success, according to a state commission that investigated the event a few years ago.
At 5:08 a.m., the mob entered Greenwood and torched every building there over a two-day period, leaving in smoldering ruin the prosperous, self-sufficient, 22-square-block community known as the Black Wall Street.
“One hundred fifty drunken Whites were deputized” by city officials, Ogletree told Abdur-Rahman Muhammad of Afro Newspapers. The mandate, Ogletree reported, was to “go get those niggers.” Estimates of the exact number of casualties vary; at least 300 people are known to have perished, but some believe the number to be as high as 3,000. Eight thousand people were displaced.
Last year’s Supreme Court petition addressed two questions: “When a district court determines whether a claim is equitably tolled on a motion for summary judgment, and thus undisputed facts, is that ruling reviewed (i) for abuse of discretion (as the Tenth Circuit and five other circuits hold), or instead (ii) de novo (as six circuits hold)?” and “May a plaintiff’s claim accrue under federal law despite the fact that she neither knew nor should have known of particular defendants’ responsibility for her injury, as four circuits hold in conflict with four other circuits?”
If the high court had agreed to resolve these conflicts on general points of law in favor of the survivors, then their underlying claims would have been heard in the lower courts. The focus then would have returned to the reparations claims.
An Early Precedent
Reparations are not a far-fetched proposal where black Americans are concerned. In fact, one of the highest-profile examples of restitution paid to Blacks after the death of the white perpetrator is that of the father of our country.
In his will, George Washington was clear about what should happen to his personal slave, Will. The man had accompanied General Washington on the battlefield and to the Constitutional Convention. Writing at Mount Vernon on July 9, 1799, Washington decreed: “And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, which shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive, if he chuses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; & this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”
George Washington paid an annuity to a Black slave as compensation for the harm the slave for years had suffered under the heavy hand of Washington!
Washington also ordered all 123 slaves owned by him alone (his wife, Martha, had brought many more into her marriage) emancipated upon his death. In his will, Washington went on, requiring his heirs to provide “a regular and permanent fund … for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting the uncertain provisions to be made by individuals.”
When Washington died on Dec. 14, 1799, 317 slaves lived on his five plantations. Martha Washington freed all of them in 1800. The Washington Post reported in 1998 that her heirs continued to remunerate the freed slaves, as George Washington had ordered, into the 1830s.
Washington’s example is significant for two reasons. First, he is known as an unusually godly leader whose precedents Americans have long revered. Second, he was the consummate political leader, and the fight for reparations, like all pursuits of racial justice in America, is a fundamentally political battle.
To be sure, a sense of American political history pervaded the rally that drew 200 between the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings last year. The elderly generation united with young adults from Howard and Harvard law schools, students who marveled at the efforts of the all-star legal team who have been on this case for two years.
“Our trip to Washington reminded us that there is an idea of justice that we believe is worth fighting for,” said Alex Ewing at the time. “As we helped the survivors of America’s bloodiest civil disturbance since the abolition of slavery up the steps of the high court, we realized that their struggle for a just society has become our struggle for a just society,” the HLS 3L and Oklahoma native added.
Longtime activists said the filing was the beginning of a larger fight.
“Reparations are long overdue for the victims of the Tulsa riot and reparations are long overdue for descendants of slaves throughout the country,” declared Odinga Harrington, a member of the Washington chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. “This, I believe, is only the first step.”
Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, Ky. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.