He's Laying the Legal Groundwork for Reparations
Damario Solomon-Simmons was in college at the University of Oklahoma when he first learned about the time in 1921 when a white mob killed hundreds of Black Tulsans, and looted and burned the thriving area known as Black Wall Street. How could that be? Solomon-Simmons grew up in Tulsa but the tragedy of the Greenwood District hadn’t been discussed in school.
“I was shocked to know there was such a thing called Black Wall Street,” he says. “And I was shocked to learn about the massacre.”
Now, two decades later, the massacre is gaining notoriety due to broader education initiatives, pop culture such as the HBO show Watchmen — and advocates such as Solomon-Simmons, who’s leading a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa in an attempt to make things right a century later.
Solomon-Simmons, 44, is the lead attorney in a suit against the city of Tulsa, the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners and other government entities, using a novel legal theory. The suit seeks reparations based on Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, the same law that the state used against drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, winning a $465 million judgment for the opioid crisis (the company is appealing). The nuisance, in the case of the massacre, is that white mobs destroyed Greenwood, killed and dispersed people, and created systemic inequities that are still felt today, Solomon-Simmons says.
“What we are saying with the lawsuit is [if] you create a public nuisance, you have a responsibility to abate it, to fix it, to stop it,” he says, pointing out that the nuisance law has no statute of limitations. “And your responsibility continues until the nuisance is corrected — it doesn’t matter if it’s five years, 50 years or 150 years.”