Contrary to popular reporting, the Michael Jackson trial is not the most important court case concerning black Americans today. The trial that is concerns an African American who, like Jackson, grew up in Gary, Indiana. Her name is Carolyn Mann.
The lawsuit involving her ancestors, the Byars family, could potentially impact every other African American who can trace his or her ancestry back to a time when blacks were enslaved, lynched or had their communities torched, crimes that were still recorded a half-century after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Mann, of Stanton Heights, can trace her mother's family's lineage back to her great-grandfather John Calhoun Byars, who was born a slave. But her lawsuit is linked to her great-uncle Herbert "Bud" Byars, whose tailoring shop was burned down in the Tulsa race riots of 1921. At least 300 were killed and over 1,200 properties demolished; Byars' shop was just one of those burned out of existence in the all-black, professional-class Greenwood district of Tulsa, known popularly as "Little Africa," the "Negro Quarter" and "the Negro's Wall Street."
A legal team -- headed by renowned Harvard law scholar Charles Ogletree, historian John Hope Franklin Jr. (whose father lost a law office in the riots) and the recently deceased Johnnie Cochran -- filed a lawsuit seeking restitution from the city of Tulsa, its police department and the state of Oklahoma. So far, the case has yet to be heard: A district court dismissed the suit, as did the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court.
But on March 9, a group of Greenwood survivors, aged from their late 80s to over 100, marched to the U.S. Supreme Court along with lawyers and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, requesting the high court require lower courts to rehear the case.
This case is just one battle blacks have been waging in search of reparations -- payment for damages inflicted by 250 years of free labor through slavery. Reparations advocates also seek compensation for the years post-Emancipation Proclamation, when federal, state and local governments legally sanctioned discrimination and violence against blacks -- like the kind that destroyed the Negro's Wall Street of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A postcard circulated throughout Tulsa gives an accurate depiction of what happened during those two days of collision between the blacks of Greenwood and the whites of greater Tulsa. In the black-and-white, low aerial shot, dark and light clouds of smoke bulge from a village of buildings. A pack of people, race difficult to determine, are gathered on a dirt road.
A message is etched into the lower right corner of the postcard that reads "RUNING (sic) THE NEGRO OUT OF TULSA." It's dated June 1, 1921, the date of Greenwood's fall.
Situated in northeast Tulsa, Greenwood was home to a number of wealthy, prominent blacks who built one of the few post-Emancipation success stories for freed slaves. The town contained close to 200 businesses including doctor practices, a library, two schools, two newspapers, and many fraternal lodges and churches.
Greenwood's riots began as many race riots do: with a young black man caught in the grips of law enforcement. The story has been officially documented by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, published Feb. 28, 2001.
According to the report, the evening of May 31, 1921 a young black shoe-shiner named Dick Rowland stepped on the wrong feet: While rushing into an elevator, Rowland stepped on the foot of a 17-year-old white girl who was operating the elevator. Rowland was later arrested on a charge of assault and taken downtown to the county jail. Rumors upgraded that charge to "rape," as frequently happened then in cases where a black male and white female were involved.
Witnesses said about 60 men gathered at the courthouse where Rowland was detained. Presumably they weren't demonstrating against the death penalty. William Gurley, a wealthy black Tulsan, was there, drawn by rumors of a lynching. He said that while a white speaker tried to convince the mob of white Tulsans to disperse, he saw "some colored men coming from Main street [sic]; ... [whites] closed in around that bunch of men, and that's when they got mixed up, a pistol went off, and hell ... broke loose."
Those colored men coming to Rowland's aid were armed. Back then, it wasn't uncommon for black men living in the South and Midwest to have rifle clubs to protect their communities from rampant Ku Klux Klan activity. But the black men quickly became outnumbered when the sheriff began deputizing hundreds of white Tulsans and arming them from the local gunshops. By early morning, June 1, these white deputies had made their way into Greenwood, where they killed at will and burned down what they could.
Laurel Buck, a white bricklayer, testified to the state's attorney general that when he went to the police station once rioting began, he was instructed to "get a gun, and get busy and try to get a nigger."
The state's National Guard was called in. According to the Commission report, the Guardsmen rounded up Greenwood citizens and put them in "protective custody." Greenwood resident Mary Jones Parrish said the Guard "fooled [the residents] out of their homes on a promise that if they would give up peacefully they would ... see that their property was saved. ... When they returned ... how keen was their disappointment to find all of their earthly possessions in ashes."
In the aftermath, neither the city nor the state did anything to investigate those implicated in the riots. No effort to rebuild Greenwood was made; in fact, rebuilding efforts were blocked -- particularly humanitarian efforts by the Red Cross and by the city's own welfare committee. In the following two years, hundreds of claims were filed against the city, totaling close to $2 million, which were all tossed out by the city's commissioner. Insurance companies ducked under "riot-exclusion" clauses, and judges showed no more favor.
A Tulsa World headline read later "Grand Jury Blames Negroes for Inciting Race Rioting: Whites Clearly Exonerated." The Tulsa Tribune newspaper wrote: "Such a district as the old 'Niggertown' must never be allowed in Tulsa again. ... In this old 'Niggertown' were a lot of bad niggers. ... Well, the bad niggers started it."
Carolyn Johnson became a Mann in 1967. She had just graduated from Central State University in Cincinnati, where she met her husband, and the following year moved to Pittsburgh to become a schoolteacher. Mann settled in East Liberty, just before the Hill District riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King.
"We had our Afros and we were quite passionate," Mann recalls. "We had our Saturday activities with the children and we had rent parties, raising money to give back to the school for equipment and materials and field trips."
Teaching second grade at Northview Heights Elementary, she made friends with another grade-school teacher just as passionate about her kids: Cheryl Allen Craig, today a judge for the Allegheny County juvenile courts.
"Carolyn was never afraid to challenge the status quo," says Craig, still a friend of Mann's today.
After she retired from teaching in 2001, Mann joined the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and started tracing her family history. While doing this research, Mann found out about Ogletree's legal team, which was seeking reparations for the living survivors of the Tulsa race riots and their descendants. Through Craig she met Pittsburgh attorney Paul Ellis, who had his own plans for helping Tulsa survivors and descendants.
While the Ogletree team awaits the Supreme Court's decision, Ellis is preparing additional cases for those linked to Greenwood but not including Ogletree's case. Ellis' case isn't just bent on holding Oklahoma culpable; it's also an attempt to lay groundwork for a future case for reparations for black Americans in general.
Unlike some Greenwood families, the Byars did rebound. Mann's great-uncle Herbert Byars rebuilt his tailoring shop -- in Greenwood -- with no help from the city or state. The business thrived and the family wasn't split up in the way others' were during the riots.
Ruth Thomas, Mann's 87-year-old aunt, is a direct survivor of the riots and lives in Toledo, Ohio. Mann began learning of their family's Greenwood connections when Thomas told her stories. Thomas was just a young girl when the riots broke out; like most women and children, she was ushered out of town to a safe place outside Tulsa. She was an educator, like her niece, and now lives with a breathing complication that makes it difficult to speak. She can't recall much of her youth in Greenwood, but does recall her Uncle Herbert's hair turning white after the riots.
Today, Mann lives in a spacious home that would integrate easily into any suburban complex, but is located in Stanton Heights, where many of Pittsburgh's professional and working-class blacks reside. Her home is adorned with portraits and paintings of African art and a multitude of family photos, both modern and vintage.
"I can't say that there were any family setbacks," says Mann. "My uncle refused to let the riots bring him down. And he didn't believe in banks. My aunt told me he kept his money to his self and he built his business back up his self."
This is why Mann hasn't put an actual price on her and her aunt's claim.
"I never even thought of an amount," says Mann. "It's something that was just so awful it should be corrected. My uncle rebuilt, but out of his own pocket. I think that the case should go through the court system and let the courts decide."
With reparations of any kind, for black Americans, money is an issue -- but it's not the only issue. For over 350 years, black families were defiled and terrorized by slavery and its aftermath. And while laws were passed in the '60s that allowed blacks to vote and let their kids sit next to white kids on buses, nothing was done to bring justice to those who, with the blessings of government, committed those crimes. It's a price that, like Mann's uncle, blacks have had to pay themselves.
Four years ago, Paul Ellis was exiting the City-County Building on Grant Street, Downtown, when he bumped into an old friend of the family, Rob Penny. Penny was representing the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA). He and dozens others had marched from Freedom Corner in the Hill District to Grant Street, calling for reparations.
Ellis was on his way to court, but he took a moment to speak with Penny. Ellis said reparations was an issue of "great interest" to him as a lawyer, and that it would largely depend on those blacks who did the genealogical research to trace themselves back to actual slaves, or those discriminated against or killed during Jim Crow.
Four years later, he's involved in an actual reparations case concerning blacks who've done that research. He currently represents Mann and her aunt and also has clients in Washington, D.C. With the exception of Thomas, a survivor, his clients are descendents of the Greenwood residents who either had homes or businesses devastated, though none had family members murdered.
Ellis faces the same hurdle that's already tripped up Ogletree's case: the statute of limitations. Courts have ruled that the statute of limitations for the civil-rights violations committed in Tulsa expired after two years. As reported in The Boston Globe last March, Judge James O. Ellison, in ruling for the Tenth Circuit Court, acknowledged that the riots were "the worst civil disturbance since the Civil War," but time was up.
This past December a federal appeals court voted not to rehear the case, with four out of 13 judges dissenting.
The legal challenge for Ogletree, and Ellis, is to convince courts that the clock should start after the state-commissioned report of 2001, and not immediately after the riots took place. They filed suit in February of 2003.
Not only did the city and state refuse to investigate the riots immediately, but they blocked other attempts to do so. Federal judges have acknowledge that the climate of the early '20s prohibited Greenwood citizens from getting a fair trial, assuming they'd be granted one at all. However, the district court's opinion was that the petitioners "could have brought this action at some unspecified point prior to 2001" -- a point in time that "dissipated substantially by the 1960s."
Tulsa's government was upset to the point where they wanted sanctions brought against the petitioners for having the audacity to bring the suit in 2003. The district court denied this request.
For Ellis, though, in cases of civil and human rights, these are extraordinary cases where equitable tolling -- suspending the statute of limitations -- should be applicable.
"There needs to be a body of legal precedents all over the country that provides avenues of legal relief [that are] not necessarily predicated on when the civil rights were violated," says Ellis.
In fact, survivors and descendants of the Rosewood community in Florida, an all-black town destroyed by whites on New Years Day, 1917, were granted over $2 million in 1994, under then-Florida governor Lawton Chiles. This is the only known case of reparations to black Americans.
"It's an uphill battle," says Ellis. "The more black people care about the environment they live in, that kind of consciousness will boost the confidence of the people and translate hopefully into more political pressure."
A case such as Rosewood's already sets a legal precedent. Reparations were awarded 71 years after the riot, providing some persuasive authority for the Tulsa case. In turn, Ogletree and Ellis hope their cases will be "test cases" too, necessary to buoy a greater reparations case on behalf of all black American descendants of enslaved Africans and West Indians.
Since 1989, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) has introduced a bill seeking a national commission to examine the reparations issue. The measure has yet to move from the House Judiciary Committee. (Conyers' bill on creating a national holiday for Martin Luther King took 15 years to pass after its introduction in 1968.)
If polls can be trusted, most Americans are unfriendly to reparations to blacks. A recent CNN/USA Today poll revealed that 90 percent of whites disagreed with the idea of the U.S. government paying up. Over a third of blacks felt the same.
On March 17, though, Philadelphia's city council voted unanimously to pass the Slavery Era Corporate Disclosure Bill, requiring any company seeking to contract with the city to disclose any profits it may have reaped from slavery.
"The key thing is disclosure; it puts the info out," says Ron Johnson, political action chair for Philly's chapter of NCOBRA. If enough "cities pass these bills that require companies to disclose if their profits came from participation in slavery," he says, "at some point these corporations will go to the U.S. government and say they sanctioned it, so they're gonna have to clean it up."
It's difficult to say whether Pittsburgh would be willing, or even able, to pass a similar bill, as has also been done in Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit. After all, financially busted Pittsburgh is having a hard enough time paying reparations for potholes.
"Philadelphia could pass that legislation because of the work done by grassroots reparations organizations to build support in the community," says City Councilor Sala Udin, saying he'd support the same kind of bill in Pittsburgh. "Pittsburgh would have to put in even more work to build support. Otherwise it would come to council and get killed."
Pennsylvania's General Assembly actually has a reparations bill that's been passed around and deleted like spam. House Bill 531 was introduced Feb. 12, 1997, with the signatures of state Rep. Joe Preston (D-East Liberty) and former state representative, Bill Robinson. It was modeled on a bill passed in Oklahoma: The measure just asks for a commission to study reparations, without actually making a cash demand. But unlike Oklahoma's bill, it's gone nowhere.
"If we're really trying to find justice, you would give people the resources and tools they need," says state Rep. Jake Wheatley. A statewide commission to study slavery's scope here is needed, he says, "because it puts the information out there. Then we can decide if what we're doing is enough."
NCOBRA's Pittsburgh chapter, the oldest in the national organization since 1987, kept the reparations issue alive -- for a while. The chapter began, in part, with Rob Penny. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh's NCOBRA has been somewhat out of order since Penny's death in 2003. NCOBRA member Shirley Muhammad admits the group hasn't been as active recently as in the past. Muhammad, who has been tapped as a new president of the chapter, says the program rebooted officially on April 1, as part of a celebration held in honor of Penny at the Martin Luther King Reading Center in the Hill.
"There's not enough activity going on here around reparations," says Muhammad. "We need to have a forum to talk about it, and NCOBRA would be that organization to have that forum. So we definitely have to get the organization back again and get them more active."
For Carolyn Mann, her role is to bring greater awareness to the issue of reparations and the importance of black people investigating their families' histories. And though the odds seem stacked against her case and others like it, she still hopes the courts will do justice.
Says Mann, "Prejudice has a long, strong arm, and it's evident in the court system. I believe there's justice for everybody except us ... but it's the only system we have."