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Panel Calls for Reparations in Tulsa Race Riot

story from the New York Times, March 1, 2001, by Ross E. Milloy

Oklahoma City, Feb 28 -- Although only 5 years old at the time, George Monroe still remembers the night in 1921 when white men burned down his family's home in Tulsa, Okla.

"They came in the house with torches and my mother hid us four wee children under the bed," Mr. Monroe said. "They set the curtains on fire and, as one guy was leaving, he stepped on my fingers. My little sister slapped her hand over my mouth to keep me from screaming out."

"That's what I remember most, my little sister's hand slapped over my mouth."

And as Mr. Monroe, now 84, watched the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 deliver its final report at a news conference today -- recommending that reparations be paid to survivors and their descendants -- he was feeling stifled once again.

"People need to speak out," said Mr. Monroe, whose family lost the roller-skating rink his father operated and two houses during the riots. "We deserve to be paid something for what happened to us."

Few argued today with the 11 member panel's conclusion that the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921, were among the worst cases of racial violence in the nations history.

The panel, appointed by the Legislature, said up to 10,000 whites stormed the prosperous Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, once called the "black Wall Street," killing at least 40 people and destroying 35 blocks of homes and businesses. But the commission's call for reparations received a more skeptical response.

Gov. Frank Keating expressed the state's regrets, calling the events "an unforgivable, unexplainable part of our history," but stopped short of endorsing reparations.

Larry E. Adair, speaker of the State House of Representatives, said, "I think everyone is going to proceed with cautions on reparations, adding "We've not really had a formal request saying what the total package would be, and until we know what we're being asked to consider, we're taking a "wait and see" attitude."

The commission's report said the amount of reparations was a matter for the Legislature to decide.

The 200-page report describes a night of almost hellish horror, sparked by a false accusation of rape against a black man and fueled by white envy over a rising black middle class: homes set aflame, planes dropping turpentine bombs and the wanton shooting of unarmed black men on the street.

Some state leaders expressed more interest in the commission's recommendations for a memorial to the victims and possibly some kind of economic empowerment zone for the Greenwood district than in reparations.

"When this started, we were looking at recognition of the significance of the events, but I don't think anyone originally talked about us having to make payments to families or any sort of settlements," Mr. Adair said.

Governor Keating did say he would be willing to raise money for a memorial to the 1921 riot victims.

Despite the cool reception that reparations are receiving among lawmakers, Representative Don Ross, who sponsored the bill that created the commission, which included public officials, historians and business leaders, seemed unwilling today to give up on the idea.

"Reparations can take many forms, and we'll just wait to see what happens in this case," he said. "But I believe good-thinking people will want something to be done." He added: "We told these people to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, and they did, by forming the most successful black community in America. And once they had lifted themselves up by their bootstraps, we destroyed them for it.

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