One hundred years ago, a horrific tragedy of racial injustice occurred in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Over the course of one night on May 31, 1921, a racist mob of white residents burned down the entire Black neighborhood of Greenwood killing more than 300 people and destroying over 1,000 homes. The legacy of that night continues to haunt Greenwood today.
Until that fateful night, Greenwood was a vibrant, wealthy center of Black business and entrepreneurship known as Black Wall Street. The neighborhood was home to most of Tulsa’s 10,000 Black residents, and its financial district supported Black entrepreneurs and business leaders throughout the region.
For 75 years, the history of the Tulsa Massacre was buried and untold until, in 1997, the Oklahoma state legislature designated a formal Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921. The report findings were deeply disturbing but not unexpected: City officials and police not only failed to intervene, they actively supported the marauding mob of 1500 white men, deputizing leaders and furnishing weapons. Some also joined the marauders in arson and murder. Those findings have helped to animate the work of the Stanford Law School Human Rights and International Justice Policy Lab on behalf of reparations.
Image by Arthur Dudley, Tulsa house on fire during 1921 massacre, source via George Lane, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ssave/49505810402
For almost a century, the Black residents of Tulsa and their descendants have fought for some semblance of justice. They have been met with denials of responsibility from government officials, impunity for those responsible for the Massacre, and active efforts to prevent the Greenwood community from rebuilding. The Commission’s report, released in 2001, recommended reparations for the survivors and their descendants. However, the city still refused to accept legal responsibility for the Massacre, and a lawsuit seeking reparations was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
Years later, in 2013, Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan took some responsibility when he apologized for the actions of the police department during the 1921 Massacre: “I cannot apologize for the actions, inaction and dereliction that those individual officers and their chief exhibited during that dark time. But as your chief today, I can apologize for our police department. I am sorry and distressed that the Tulsa Police Department did not protect its citizens during those tragic days in 1921.” However, similar statements of responsibility from other city officials have been notably lacking.
The tireless work of community activists has brought the Tulsa Race Massacre into new focus as the centennial of the tragedy approaches on May 31, 2021. A Centennial Commission has worked on several community and educational projects to commemorate the Massacre, including a successful effort to include the history of the Massacre in the curriculum of state schools. The Reverend Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of the Historic Vernon Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa, has been among many leaders calling for reparations. Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the terrible history of the Tulsa Race Massacre and making a powerful case that reparations are long overdue. One of the survivors of the Massacre, Lessie Benningfield Randle, at age 105, has joined with the relatives of other survivors in a new lawsuit seeking reparations, including payment for property damage calculated at $50 million to $100 million in today’s dollars. The suit uses legal arguments similar to those that proved successful in holding a pharmaceutical company accountable for the community harm caused by the opioid crisis.
Despite these important efforts, many obstacles remain to achieving justice in Tulsa. Persistent racial discrimination continues in the form of neighborhood segregation, mistrust by the black community of white city officials and police, and, as described in the Tulsa reparations lawsuit, a legacy of overt public disinvestment in the area. An annual study shows significant and persistent inequality in the city, in particular on issues of law enforcement and access to justice. And in June 2020 a police officer in Tulsa made a painfully racist comment suggesting that police in the city are shooting Black people “less than we probably ought to be.”
The Stanford Law School Human Rights and International Justice Policy Lab worked with Rev. Dr. Turner to identify opportunities to bring greater international attention to the Tulsa Race Massacre and the continued lack of justice and accountability. Our research team was also looking for ways to link the ongoing efforts in Tulsa to the broader global movement for transitional justice, which advocates addressing past human rights abuses using a holistic approach combining elements such as criminal prosecutions for perpetrators, truth-seeking, reparations, and legal and institutional reforms.
With the centennial approaching, our research team was especially interested in options for involving human rights bodies at the United Nations that are charged with monitoring compliance with international human rights obligations. The United States has important obligations to prevent human rights abuses and racial discrimination under several international treaties that it has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). In addition, the United Nations has several special rapporteurs working on issues of racism, reparations, and transitional justice, who are tasked with visiting countries, reporting on human rights issues, and urging governments to enact needed changes.
There is a strong case that the United States is not currently meeting its international human rights obligations as a result of its failure to adequately address past and ongoing racial injustice. The continued lack of accountability for the Tulsa Race Massacre provides just one particularly painful example. Our research team was especially concerned to learn that under the Trump Administration, the United States missed the deadline to submit its periodic report to the CERD Committee, which is now more than three years overdue. These reports, submitted every few years by all countries that are parties to the CERD, are crucial tools for ensuring that countries remain accountable for their commitments to uphold human rights and eliminate racism. The reports, and the process through which the United Nations reviews them, also provide a critical opportunity for communities like those in Tulsa to contribute their voices to the global discussion on addressing racial discrimination.
We anticipate that the Biden Administration will return the United States to more active participation in international human rights bodies. With that in mind, the Policy Lab worked with Rev. Dr. Turner to identify a series of potential opportunities to raise the Tulsa Race Massacre in international forums in 2021 and beyond. The first such opportunity arose just as our project was concluding in December 2020, when the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a call for submissions. The office is preparing a report on systemic racism against Africans and people of African descent, with particular emphasis on human rights violations by law enforcement officials and on efforts to provide redress for victims.
Given the role that law enforcement officials played in the Tulsa Race Massacre, as well as the long history of impunity for their crimes, we believed the story of the Massacre could make an important contribution to this United Nations report. The Policy Lab supported Rev. Dr. Turner in preparing a submission, which focused on the history of the Massacre, the continued lack of accountability, and the need for reparations and other forms of redress.
Image: The letter from Rev. Dr. Robert Turner to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) advocating reparations for the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
In assessing the role of reparations in other international contexts, we concluded that reparations for Black Tulsans and their descendants are consistent with U.S. human rights obligations, including under the ICCPR. Reparations would help close the economic gap between Black and white Tulsans, and human rights courts have previously granted reparations to indigenous communities for similar purposes when such groups had suffered from expropriation of their land. Reparations are also an essential transitional justice tool that can help catalyze healing and equality for affected communities. In short, the legacy of the Tulsa Massacre is ripe for reparations grounded in international human rights law. These Policy Lab recommendations are listed in the Rev. Dr. Turner’s letter to the OHCHR, which is available on the Stanford Law and Policy Lab IHR website (and linked above). Our hope is that information about the Tulsa Race Massacre will be included in the final OHCHR report, as well as in other reports and activities of international human rights bodies, thus bringing greater global attention to the urgent need for racial justice in Tulsa.
There is tremendous work to be done to address systemic racism in Tulsa and throughout the United States, and much of that work will need to occur at the local level. But bringing these issues to the global stage also plays a role in holding our own government accountable to its international treaty obligations to protect human rights, eliminate racism, and provide redress for past racial injustice.
 The Stanford Law International Human Rights Policy Lab Tulsa Massacre Reparations research team was led by Stanford Law Professor Beth Van Schaack with student members Kevan Christensen (JD/MPA 2021), Jules Ross (JD 2022), and Michael Rover (JD 2022). The research took place over the fall 2020 term and concluded with recommendations to the client, the Rev. Dr. Robert Turner, for his Dec. 3, 2020, letter to the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights.
 See Purdue Pharma (Nov. 24, 2020), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/opioid-manufacturer-purdue-pharma-pleads-guilty-fraud-and-kickback-conspiracies; and https://u.osu.edu/ohiostart/2020/07/01/purdue-pharma-offers-reparations-for-individuals-affected-by-opioid-crisis/.