Court Rejects Reparations Case

The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to hear a case presented by Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree that sought reparations for the victims of a cataclysmal 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla.

The case—Alexander v. State of Oklahoma—came before the court after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last fall that it was too late for riot survivors and their descendants to sue the state. The Supreme Court did not offer any comment on its decision not to hear the case.

Ogletree, who represented nearly 150 elderly survivors of the riot, wrote in an e-mail that the refusal was “hardly surprising.” But he emphasized that he still takes issue with the decisions reached by lower courts that argued that the statute of limitations had already passed in the case.

“The Courts believe that the suit could have been brought in the 1980s, and we believe it could not have been brought until after the evidence was first fully discovered,” he wrote, referring to a 2001 report by an Oklahoma commission that investigated the riots.

The 1921 riot—often considered the most devastating race riot in the country’s history—left hundreds of African-Americans dead and destroyed homes and churches in Tulsa’s Greenwood district. In 1921, a grand jury exonerated a group of whites who were accused of involvement in the riots.

Ogletree said that his group will continue to seek alternative methods of compensating the survivors, who range from 89 to 105 years of age.

“Since we filed this lawsuit more than two years ago, over 30 of the original survivors...have since died, and we are deeply worried that if these matters aren’t addressed with urgency, more will simply die having never had their day in court,” he wrote.

He added that his legal team has already received nationwide support from public officials, private citizens, and corporations interested in aiding the survivors.

Last month, the Congressional Black Caucus heard testimony from attorneys and victims of the race riot for the first time. Ogletree said his team plans to continue to participate in congressional hearings and expects “some legislative action to assist these survivors while they are still alive.”

Ogletree and his team of more than 400 plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in February of 2003. Last fall, judges on the 10th Circuit found that the statute of limitations had already passed.

“While we have found no legal avenue exists through which Plaintiffs can bring their claims, we take no great comfort in that conclusion,” one justice wrote in the decision.

—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.