Putting a price tag on the toll of Tulsa's past

Her clearest memory of that day is the sound of bullets whizzing by her head as she raced down a dirt road. Now, 82 years later, that sound - and the fear it filled her with at age 9 - still shakes Eldoris McCondichie.

" 'Get up,' my momma told me. 'The white folks are killing the colored folks,' " she recalls, sitting on her flower-freckled couch, just blocks from her childhood home.

Churches have sprung up, and parks, too, but ghosts of May 31, 1921, linger in Greenwood. At the time, it was the most affluent African-American community, known by many as Black Wall Street.

But that changed when a black shoe shiner was accused of trying to rape a white woman in a downtown hotel. In the next two days, angry whites spilled into Greenwood, killing African-Americans and looting and burning homes and churches in one of the country's worst race riots. Yet outside Tulsa, the incident is little known, and even in Tulsa, it was only whispered about until recently.

Now, a group of prominent civil rights lawyers has filed a class-action lawsuit against Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma. The impetus was a 2001 state-funded study detailing the Greenwood atrocities. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for survivors. But some say that even more important is its potential to reignite the debate over reparations for slavery, fueled by recent awards such as Florida's $2 million fund for survivors of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, and Chicago and St. Louis's payments to victims of urban race riots in the 1910s.

"For many people, the money is important," says Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But probably more important, for a matter of cultural history, is that the facts be established."

One of the reasons given for opposing reparations is the lack of living survivors. But in the Tulsa case, there are 121 race-riot survivors, ranging in age from 82 to 102. Many can still vividly recall the details of those harrowing 48 hours.

It began when a mob of white men was preparing to lynch the black shoe shiner and a group of blacks showed up to stop them. The lawsuit contends that city and state officials encouraged the violence by deputizing and arming the angry mob - and then failed to protect Greenwood's residents.

In the ensuing hours, as many as 10,000 whites, including Tulsa police and National Guard troops, poured into the black community, killing, looting, and burning, says Eddie Faye Gates, a local historian and member of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. She believes the riot was spurred by pent-up frustration over Black Wall Street's burgeoning success.

"We had a nice little city," says Otis Clark, 100, now living in a hilltop apartment overlooking his childhood home. "We had hotels, restaurants, pool halls, skating rinks. Everything they had downtown, we had here."

That came to an abrupt end when Mr. Clark heard from neighbors that a "ruckus was on its way." Bolting from his house, he hooked up with a friend who was heading to the fire station to help transport some of the thousands running north, away from the violence. While the two struggled to unlock the fire-station door, his friend was shot in the hand. They both ran off, never to see one another again.

Eleven-year-old Juanita Burnett Arnold was one of those panicked thousands fleeing. She and her family ran north for miles while her grandfather, who'd invested his life savings in a dry-goods store, stayed behind.

Along the road, Arnold recalls from her lace-covered kitchen table, she saw young men shot and exhausted elderly women collapsing. Black smoke filled the air from the homes being torched and planes circled overhead, raining firebombs and bullets on the frightened crowds.

She, Clark, McCondichie, and others eventually reached safety. But when they returned to Greenwood, they didn't recognize the 35 square blocks. According to the Red Cross, 1,256 homes were burned, 215 were looted and left standing, and virtually all the 191 businesses were destroyed. Property damages were estimated at $2 million - though none of the insurance claims were paid out.

Arnold's home was destroyed, though her grandfather's remained. Clark's home was also destroyed and his stepfather and bulldog were missing. "We never did see them no more," he says.

Clark, like many, left the devastated community. He headed west to Hollywood, Calif., and ended up working as a butler for Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, and Joan Crawford. But he moved back a few years ago. "They thought the colored people were living pretty high over here," he says. "Well, we lost everything in that riot and now they don't want to give anything back."

For its part, the city says it has poured money into redevelopment, planning a memorial and museum, and asking Congress to consider the site as a unit of the National Park Service. And in any case, city leaders continue, a lawsuit should not be the means for amends. "Our position is going to be that the courtroom is not an appropriate venue for analyzing events that happened over 80 years ago," says Larry Simmons, deputy city attorney.

The legal hurdles are substantial - even with heavy-hitting lawyers such as Johnnie Cochran, Charles Ogletree, and Dennis Sweet. The incident is 82 years old and survivors and witnesses are dying every week. And proving that the city and state encouraged the riot - or didn't do enough to stop it - will be hard.

"But maybe just the bringing of the action has some benefit in and of itself," says Andy Coats, dean of the law school at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. "It focuses attention on the idea that what happened shouldn't be forgotten and could never be repeated. That could be as much a part of it as the ultimate hope of recovering damages."

If the lawsuit is successful and if Clark is alive to see any compensation, he says he'd like to visit Africa and "see how folks started out." He'll most likely give the rest to those who need it more. "I don't need too much personally," he says. Many of the survivors echo those sentiments. After all, Clark says, "the Lord done bless us, and let us live."

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