Nine days before the Remember & Rise event at Tulsa’s ONEOK field was set to take place, an attorney who represents a group of Race Massacre survivors dramatically increased a request for money to secure their participation in the event.
The event, which was set to include politician Stacey Abrams and musician John Legend, was abruptly canceled Thursday. Members of the Race Massacre Centennial Commission said on Thursday they hoped to host the event at a later date.
Damario Solomon-Simmons, a Tulsa civil rights attorney, asked the Commission to raise $1 million for each Race Massacre survivor, as well as for a pledge of $50 million to a fund for survivors of the massacre and their descendants according to a May 23 email obtained by The Frontier. Those figures were a substantial increase over the original requests. Sen. Kevin Matthews, a member of the Centennial Commission, said the attorney had initially asked for $100,000 for each survivor and $2 million for the fund.
The advocacy group Human Rights Watch has accused the Centennial Commission of failing to reach out to the descendants of race massacre victims or seek their input.
Solomon-Simmons sent the email to Tulsa pastor Ray Owens, Race Massacre commission members Phil Armstrong and Ken Levit, Julie Mikuta from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, as well Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, the sister of slain Tulsa man Terence Crutcher.
The email was first reported on by CBS News and later shared by The Oklahoman. The Frontier also obtained the email.
“We believe you understand this is a priority for us,” Solomon-Simmons wrote about the $1 million payments for survivors. He wrote in the email he understood the group was set to “ascertain how much you can commit to providing to the survivors before May 31st, 2021,” the day before the Remember & Rise event was set to take place.
Solomon-Simmons did not respond to requests for comment from The Frontier on Friday.
Solomon-Simmons also wrote that “after debriefing with our advisors” attorneys for the survivors decided they would only accept a pledge of $50 million for the Survivor and Descendant Fund and that the money had to be housed at one of six Black-owned banks the group had decided on. The email did not include the names of the potential banks.
Solomon-Simmons said they hoped to announce the fund on May 31, with “an initial fundraising goal” of $100 million.
Matthews said at a media conference Friday that Owens had brokered a meeting that “ended well” on May 22 in which the attorneys for the survivors and commission members agreed “at the time” to raise $100,000 per survivor and a gift of $2 million for a reparation fund.
Matthews said they had a deadline of “one week, and we did it.”
“We raised the money and we were excited that the survivors were going to accept the gift,” Matthews said.
The next day, the request was increased. Matthews said the request was not possible.
“We could not respond to those demands,” he said. “I absolutely want the survivors, the descendants and others that were affected to be financially and emotionally supported, however this is not the way.”
Matthews said they had raised some money, and if the group isn’t “barred” by the survivors’ attorneys, they would give that money “directly to the survivors.”
“We believe the survivors and the descendants deserve justice,” Matthews said. “That includes healing and financial restitution.”
Solomon-Simmons said in an interview with The Oklahoman that the email was a “list of seven requests to ensure the survivors’ participation with the Commission’s scheduled events.”
Solomon-Simmons said in the email that 33 percent of revenue from the Greenwood Rising history center had to be allotted to “directly benefit survivors and descendants of the North Tulsa Community. He also wanted representatives for survivors to have the power to pick six new members for the Greenwood Rising board. Solomon-Simmons also asked that the group of commissioners, funders and Tulsa Community Foundation members publicly support “our litigation and efforts to hold the perpetrators of the Massacre and its aftermath accountable.”
He said in the email that the attorneys were now choosing to decline a grant a from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, of which Levit is the executive director, because the “proposed gift is now being used to try to put the survivors in a false light to lessen their credibility and undermine our overall reparations fight.”
Request for apology from senator
Solomon-Simmons also asked in the email for an apology from Sen. Kevin Matthews, chair of the Race Massacre Centennial Commission, for comments he made about survivors in a news story earlier this month.
Attorneys representing the survivors had asked for some profits from the Greenwood Rising museum to be earmarked for survivors as a kind of reparations after other efforts had failed. Viola Fletcher, a 107-year-old survivor, testified before Congress that she still lived in poverty all these years after the massacre.
In the story, which detailed testimony given by three remaining Race Massacre survivors to Congress this month, Matthews was quoted as saying that the government should find a way to pay reparations for the massacre but that nonprofits shouldn’t be responsible.
Matthews said in the story that survivors had not asked for a portion of profits of national documentaries and efforts to tell about the massacre, but were now seeking funds from Tulsans.
“Unfortunately when you have a community that is starved of resources and attention for so many years, these types of things happen rather than … having meaningful discussions instead of pointing and blaming. And, unfortunately that happens in traumatized communities, families and relationships,” Matthews was quoted as saying.
He said in the story that one of the center’s donors, who was not identified, had offered to pay the three remaining survivors salaries and to assist with health care costs for the “remainder of their lives.”
Solomon-Simmons asked in the email that Matthews “immediately and publicly apologize for his inaccurate portrayal of the survivors.”
“Sen. Matthews needs to clearly state that no Commission donor has given any funds to … the survivors … despite what Sen. Matthews and others have falsely stated, there was never an agreement to provide for the survivors ‘for the rest of their life” or ‘all of their medical needs,’” Solomon-Simmons wrote.
He said that Matthews’ apology had to be publicly made by May 24, a day after the email was sent.
The remainder of the Race Massacre Centennial’s events, including an appearance by President Joe Biden set for Tuesday, are expected to take place.