He's Laying the Legal Groundwork for Reparations - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Damario Solomon-Simmons is trying to get compensation for the victims of the Tulsa massacre, nearly 100 years later.
SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because his case could reshape the legal landscape.

By Kristi Eaton

  • Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons is leading a suit against the city of Tulsa for the 1921 razing of Black Wall Street.
  • If successful, it could set a precedent for reparations on a wider scale.

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.

Damario Solomon-Simmons

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.”

I transcend so many stereotypes, but at the same time, I’ve been so many stereotypes.

Damario Solomon-Simmons

Representatives for the various defendants in the case said they couldn’t comment on pending litigation or did not respond to requests for comment.

The case resonates far beyond Oklahoma. Jeffrey Johnson, a lawyer and managing legal editor for online legal resource FreeAdvice, says a victory by Solomon-Simmons — which he figures is likely if the Johnson & Johnson case survives appeals as a favorable precedent — would lead to more cases targeting redlining or slavery under a similar theory. Divided rulings across states would send the issue to the Supreme Court.

“It’s possible that a liberal court could find that these disparities require a finding of a constitutional right to reparations to be funded by the federal government and all state governments where slavery was permitted,” Johnson says. “A conservative court would probably hold that the nuisance laws were not meant to apply in such cases and that reparations for societal harms like these represent a slippery slope or are too diffuse in impact to be calculable or otherwise inappropriate.”

Solomon-Simmons grew up with his mother and spent a good deal of time with his maternal grandparents, who integrated their neighborhood. His mother’s older sister integrated a high school in Tulsa. “All those stories really impacted me,” he says.

He recalls his mother, who didn’t have a lot of money when he was a child, buying him a set of encyclopedias, which he read voraciously. He initially set his sights on law school to earn the credential and training; however, he thought he’d become a professor, not a trial lawyer. But “I just feel like this is my purpose,” he adds.

Tulsa Race Massacre

An African American looking at the skeletons of iron beds rising above the ashes of a burned-out block after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Source Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty

Once he first learned about the massacre, Solomon-Simmons wanted to spread the word as widely as possible. He started writing, speaking, and holding forums about Greenwood and the reparations movement. He also worked on an unsuccessful 2003 lawsuit stemming from the massacre. That case –— brought by prominent civil rights lawyers including Charles Ogletree and Johnnie Cochran — focused on civil and tort claims seeking reparations on behalf of about 200 survivors and descendants. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma dismissed the case due to the statute of limitations, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

But Solomon-Simmons stayed involved with the movement and kept in contact with survivors, as he established his own law firm. As the 100-year anniversary nears, Solomon-Simmons has launched the Justice for Greenwood Foundation, which pushes for compensation for victims and their descendants as well as the first-ever criminal investigation, while cataloguing as many family stories as possible. He filed the landmark suit on Sept. 1 and believes it could be a steppingstone to nationwide reparations “for the enslavement, Jim Crow, redlining, Black codes, lynching and other heinous forms of oppression our people have suffered here in America.”

While high-profile lawyer Benjamin Crump has been omnipresent in representing the families of police killing victims, Solomon-Simmons is emerging as a civil rights legal star to watch — with the massacre case potentially vaulting him to prominence beyond Oklahoma. Solomon-Simmons, who has worked closely with Crump and considers him a mentor, has represented the family of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black motorist who was shot by a white police officer in Tulsa in 2016, as well as two Black youth who were handcuffed after authorities said they were seen jaywalking. 

Taking on such cases can be mentally and emotionally taxing, he concedes, and he relaxes by working in the yard and going for walks around his neighborhood. Even before COVID-19, he and his wife lived a quiet, quarantine-type life, he says, when he wasn’t traveling or speaking.

A former college football player, Solomon-Simmons is now vegan and the owner of a six-pound poodle. “I’m a Black man,” he says. “I transcend so many stereotypes, but at the same time, I’ve been so many stereotypes.”

Billing himself as a national civil rights lawyer, he’s taken on high-profile cases such as University of Iowa football players seeking damages from the school for racial discrimination.

Challenging powerful entities, governments and the like with a small team is not easy, he says, adding: “Law is my ministry and justice is my passion.”

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