Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional details.
Next week’s headline event marking the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre was canceled suddenly Thursday, with organizers citing “unexpected circumstances with entertainers and speakers.”
In a statement, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission didn’t specify the circumstances that led to the cancellation of the event scheduled for Monday at ONEOK Field in Tulsa. The commission statement held out hope that it might be rescheduled later this year.
“Due to unexpected circumstances with entertainers and speakers, the Centennial Commission is unable to fulfill our high expectations for Monday afternoon’s commemoration event and has determined not to move forward with the event at this time,” the statement said.
The commission says on its website it aims to “leverage the rich history surrounding the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by facilitating actions, activities, and events that commemorate and educate all citizens.” It had enlisted Grammy-award-winning singer and songwriter John Legend to headline the “Remember & Rise” event. Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams was to deliver the keynote address.
The event was to be televised nationwide and 6,000 people were expected to attend.
“Remember & Rise” was to highlight a year of events the commission organized to educate people about the attack by a white mob that experts say killed up to 300 people, most of them Black.
CBS News learned the event was canceled after a lawyer representing the survivors and their heirs made requests that the organizing commission considered unreasonable. There are three living survivors of the massacre — 107, 106 and 100 years old.
Multiple sources shared an email with CBS News that the lawyer, Demario Solomon-Simmons, sent to the commission last Sunday. In the email, Solomon-Simmons accused the chair of the commission of attacking “the credibility and integrity of our survivors.” The email went on to say: “As a result, this is where we are and/or what we need in order to come to an agreement at this point.”
The first request that was listed — of several — was $1 million per survivor, which the attorney described as a “priority for us.”
The second request was a $50 million pledge to “our Survivor and Descendant fund.” The attorney stated that after conferring with advisors, “we will not agree with any other entity housing our fund. This is non-negotiable. It is important to us and our community that our fund be housed at a Black bank.”
The attorney also noted that they plan to announce their fund at a “nationally-streamed Survivor and Descendant Town Hall” on May 31, “with an initial fundraising goal of $100M.”
A commission source told CBS News the commission and a lawyer representing the survivors had already agreed on financial terms, but the new requests couldn’t be met, at least in time for Monday’s commemoration.
The lawyer claimed to CBS News that the commission hasn’t been negotiating in good faith for months, and he maintained that the survivors never agreed to participate in the event.
The chair of the Centennial Commission, Oklahoma State Senator Kevin Matthews, said at a press conference Friday that the group had agreed to $100,000 per living survivor. He also said the group pledged $2 million to the reparations fund discussed with the attorney and that the money had been raised.
“So, to be clear, I absolutely want the survivors, the descendants and others that were affected to be financially and emotionally supported,” Matthews said, according to CBS Tulsa affiliate KOTV. “However, this is not the way, no matter how hard we try. We do have the funds, and if the legal team doesn’t bar us from it again, we will be providing those funds directly to the survivors.”
In a statement published by KOTV, Solomon-Simmons said:
“After months of zero communication and under immense pressure that John Legend and Stacey Abrams may no longer participate if the survivors were not centered, a meeting was scheduled for Saturday. Immediately following that call, our legal team submitted a written list of seven requests to ensure the survivors participation with the Commission’s scheduled events. WE revisited that list of requests on yet another Zoom call on Tuesday. The agreement was to have answers on each of the requests by COB. That didn’t happen.”
“There was never a non-negotiable demand for $50 million dollars. The non-negotiable issues were that the fund would provide direct financial support to survivors and descendants, that the fund would be administered by descendants and community members, and the fund be held in a Black bank. The Justice for Greenwood Foundation, whose board includes descendants and community members, has already established a fund. Nevertheless, we were willing to explore details of the fund’s administration, so long as the fund continued to be overseen by a majority of descendants and community members.”
“We have turned our attention to raising money for them, ourselves and on our scheduled events. We have three remaining survivors. They will be heard. They will live with grace and dignity. The time for justice is now.”
In a statement late Thursday, the project director of the Centennial Commission, Phil Armstrong, said the panel was disappointed but encouraged people to visit other events taking place in Tulsa this weekend.
“We are disappointed in this last minute change but there is still so much to look forward to this weekend and we are still so proud of the work of the Commission over the past five years,” Armstrong said. “I hope you’ll join us at the Candlelight Vigil, at the Pathway to Hope, at one of the many great events other community organizations are hosting and of course at Greenwood Rising.”
Greenwood Rising is a 7,000-square-foot museum nearing completion that’s located in the Greenwood District and tells the story of Black Wall Street and the race massacre.
Violence erupted May 31 and June 1 in 1921, when a white mob killed an estimated 300 people and wounded 800, most of them Black, while burning 30 blocks of Black-owned businesses and homes and neighborhood churches in the Greenwood neighborhood, also known as ” Black Wall Street.” Planes were even used to drop explosives on the area, burning it to the ground.
A renewed search for bodies in 2020 found at least 12 in an unmarked mass grave in a Tulsa cemetery. A team led by Oklahoma’s state archaeologist hasn’t identified the bodies or confirmed they were victims of the massacre. But they were found in an area adjacent to two gravestones of victims and where old funeral home records show both identified and unidentified victims were buried.
The following is the text of the email that Demario Solomon-Simmons sent to the commission last Sunday:
Good evening Everyone,
First thank you for your time yesterday. Please know that we thought the meeting was productive. Leaving the meeting we were cautiously optimistic that an agreement could be reached which would allow us to have a more unified Centennial commemoration. However, finding out today that Sen. Kevin Matthews, Chair of the Centennial Commission, attacked the credibility and integrity of our survivors has set-us back some.
As a result, this is where we are and/or what we need in order to come to an agreement at this point:
1. $1M per survivor. We believe you understand this is a priority for us. We believe you understand there is a great sense of urgency. We understood that you are going to visit with the Commission/TCF/Funders to ascertain how much you can commit to providing to the survivors before May 31st 2021.
2. $50M pledge to our Survivor and Descendant fund.
a. After debriefing with our advisors, we have decided we will not agree with any other entity housing our fund. This is non-negotiable. It is important to us and our community that our fund be housed at a Black bank.
b. As I explained during our meeting we have been working with our corporate counsel, Schulte, Roth, and Zable (including William Zable), and our mentor Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative to develop our fund. With Bryan’s counsel we have identified 6 Black banks that we are currently in discussions with about the possibility of holding our fund.
c. With the help of our national partners, we plan to announce our fund at our May 31st, 2021nationally-streamed Survivor and Descendant Town Hall with an initial fundraising goal of $100M.
d. We request that the Commission/TCF/Funders pledge to raise $50M for our fund. If you agree to this, we would like for you to specify a date you plan to have this amount raised by.
3. Allot 33% of Greenwood Rising revenue to directly benefit survivors and descendants and the North Tulsa community. We understand you believe this ask is high. However, we understand you will visit with the Commission/TCF/Funder to ascertain what type of revenue split would be acceptable to you. We also understand that you would agree to make a public announcement to work towards establishing a TIF district for the Historical Greenwood community that would directly and specifically benefit North Tulsa.
4. Greenwood Rising board make-up. We understand that you are going to ascertain whether the Commission/TCF/Funders will agree to expand the board by 6 to 15 and allow us to select those 6 new members.
5. Public Support of Lawsuit. We understand that you will visit with the Commission/TCF/Funders to ascertain whether you all will publicly support our litigation and efforts to hold the perpetrators of the Massacre and its aftermath accountable.
6. Public apology from Commission Chairman Sen. Matthews for Attacking Survivors.
a. Sen. Matthews must immediately and publicly apologize for his inaccurate portrayal of the survivors, his misrepresentation of the proposed gift from GKFF, and our campaign for justice and reparations in the media. https://www.enidnews.com/news/last-tulsa-race-massacre-survivors-push-for-reparations/article_cf550c14-ba7c-11eb-b273-872233bcb49b.html.
b. GKFF and I agreed that any gift would be strictly anonymous to ensure the gift would not impede our larger reparations campaign. In fact, the grant agreement specifically states the grant would be “anonymous and not be announced in an way publicly or privately.” Obviously, this confidential agreement was breached, and 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. As a result, we will decline the grant.
c. Sen. Matthews needs to clearly state that no Commission donor has given any funds to Justice For Greenwood or 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.” Sen. Matthews’ public apology and clarification must occur by the end of business tomorrow Monday May 24, 2021.
7. Rise and Remember Event. If we can get to an agreement on the above, we would also want to help shape the program of the Rise and Remember event at ONEOK Field occurring on May 31, 2021. We want an opportunity to speak and honor the survivors and our work.
In regard to timing because our events begin Thursday May 27th 2021, and our schedules will be completely swamped from then on, we believe that we need to have an agreement on the above points by Wednesday May 26th 2021. As a result, we believe we should schedule our next meeting for tomorrow afternoon Monday, May 24th 2021. We are available between 3-5pm.
Please let us know what time will work for you. Dr. Crutcher will be in Dallas for a speech, so a Zoom call is preferable. Lastly, we request that until and unless we can get to an agreement, please remove any refence of survivors participating in any Commission events from your website.
Damario Solomon-Simmons, Esq., M.Ed.
— CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca and Rodney Hawkins contributed reporting to this story.