Insurance Exclusions Left Black Tulsans Footing the Bill for the Massacre

In the wake of the massacre, state lawmakers have introduced a number of bills in the Oklahoma state legislature aimed at keeping those who commit mass violence from obtaining firearms. The most controversial law, Senate Bill 2123, would require the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to report all individuals who are involuntarily committed for mental health treatment to the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigations for inclusion in a national database of people prohibited from buying firearms. The bill, which was introduced by Senator Tom Newell and Senator David Holt, is expected to pass both the state senate and house, although the senate has yet to give a date for a vote.

As many of you may know, the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down this past Friday. It was a controversial trial and everyone was on a high of emotion. However, I was surprised to learn that the jury found Zimmerman not guilty of all charges. This not only shocked me, but also left me asking questions as to why the jury would find him not guilty.

Several weeks ago, we learned that a toxicology report, commissioned by the families of the victims of the mass shooting at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas, revealed that the victims would be left with no medical coverage. The report concluded that after the mass shooting, the victims were not covered by any federal or state insurance.

In the 1910s, Lula Williams ran a popular theater and candy store in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, making her one of the best-known businesswomen in the area.

According to newspaper reports and Charles Christopher, her great-grandson, things were going so well at the Dreamland Williams Theater that she opened two more theaters near Tulsa. Together they founded the Dreamland Theatrical Co.

Williams obtained insurance for her business – although, like other residents of the area, she could only obtain partial coverage on several policies. Even that didn’t help his cause when white mobs destroyed the Williams Dreamland Theater and much of Greenwood during the city’s 1921 race massacre.

According to her subsequent lawsuits, Williams suffered damages of $79,164, which today equates to $1.2 million. The three insurance companies to which she had paid premiums rejected her claims.

The massacre claimed the lives of dozens of black residents. It also left a devastated neighborhood and many homeowners struggling to cover their losses. Williams is one of at least 70 Greenwood homeowners who filed a claim after the massacre. After several claims were denied, Williams and others unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit against the insurance companies and then against the city of Tulsa.

Lula Williams ran a popular theater and a candy store.


Williams Family Dreamland LLC

According to the report of an impartial commission appointed by the state to investigate the event, property and business owners in Greenwood suffered losses of at least $1.5 million during the period 2001-1921. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that’s about $22 million in today’s dollars. This figure is likely an underestimate of the total number of claims because not all people were fully insured or went to court.

The insurance companies ended up using an exclusion clause that prevented many claims from being paid. Policies with such a clause provided that insurers were not liable for losses resulting directly or indirectly from invasion, riot, insurrection, civil war or civil disturbance, military force or usurpation.

According to Christopher Messer, a sociology professor at Colorado State University in Pueblo who has studied the Tulsa riots, the exceptions to the riots were not intentionally racist. In the early 1900s, however, insurance companies knew what the consequences would be for black homeowners if they applied this provision because these attacks were so frequent, he said.

These riots did not just happen everywhere – they were usually characterized by white mobs invading and destroying black neighborhoods. It was never the other way around, he said.

Insurance issues have long cast a shadow over Tulsa. A lawsuit filed in Oklahoma by survivors and descendants of victims of the massacre against the city of Tulsa and other local officials alleges that insurers have refused to pay claims. Tulsa residents and politicians wondered how insurance companies would classify the event and what the consequences would be. The descendants of the victims of the mass killings are wondering how their ancestors’ property would benefit their families today if the claims were settled.

According to family members, Williams sold her two theaters outside Greenwood after the massacre and used the proceeds to rebuild a theater in Greenwood. Those insurance payments could have been used to rebuild Dreamland and other theaters she could have kept, said Danya Bachus, Williams’s great-great-granddaughter. The empire could continue to grow.

View of the Williams Dreamland Theater on North Greenwood Avenue, destroyed in the 1921 massacre.


Greenwood Cultural Center/Getty Images

Investigators say court records do not provide a complete picture of how insurers responded to a mass murder. Some entrepreneurs have been successful, while others have been unable or unwilling to pursue denied claims.

Some people have filed multiple lawsuits. Of the 96 lawsuits filed against more than 30 insurance companies, 76 were dismissed and the remaining 20 had no documented results, according to Oklahoma Historical Society data.

Historians say records show that before the massacre, some of Greenwood’s most successful businessmen were forced to buy insurance policies with limited coverage options that did not fully protect the value of their assets. Insurance authorities say it was not unusual at the time to have multiple policies on the same property.

Ms Williams suffered a loss of $79,164, which amounts to $1.2 million today.


Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

Williams’ property in Greenwood and its contents, including the theater and the building that housed the candy store, were worth about $80,000, she said. His eight insurance policies with three companies for various properties covered only $31,700. Williams said she paid $865.51 in insurance premiums for policies in effect during the massacre, but her claims do not specify whether it was for one year or longer.

After a legal battle lasting nearly a year and a half, two insurance companies paid Williams $566.25 in overdue premiums, according to court documents. Their applications were still rejected.

At the time, the insurers were accused of failing to conduct their own due diligence and of relying on a characterization of the Greenwood event that turned out to be incorrect: This destruction was the result of a riot caused by unruly black residents.

It seems it was more convenient to take the word of newspapers and people who did this than to do research and do the right thing, said Kevin Matthews, an Oklahoma state senator and founder of the 1921 Tulsa Centennial Racial Massacre Commission, which was formed in 2016 in part to commemorate the tragedy.

Dania Bachus, great-granddaughter of Lula Williams, believes an insurance payout would restore Dreamland.


Courtney Coles for The Wall Street Journal

Sir, I want to thank you for your support. Matthews said the use of the word riot to describe what is going on has been a sore point for black residents of Tulsa for decades. He said it showed that there was a black uprising and that the people of Greenwood were destroying their own neighborhood. Many people in my community are still broken by this riot.

He said when Matthews created the Centennial Commission in 2016, it was originally called the Racial Uprising Commission. In 2017, Oklahoma passed bipartisan legislation to help fund this work. A year later, he and other officials decided to change the word riot to massacre after feedback from constituents, causing people and historical monuments in Greenwood to call the event something else today.

According to Messer of Colorado, insurers’ investigation of the event may not have affected the number of denials because the exclusion clauses were so broad, including the words invasion and insurrection. The racism of the time made it easy to justify rejecting claims regardless of the actual cause, he added. And the city has really tried to portray it as an event caused by black activists, he said.

The two insurance companies that sold policies to Greenwood residents still exist.

Hartford Financial Services Group Inc.

and Great American Insurance Group.

Hartford purchased a $1,500 policy for Emma Gourley, who had several properties on Greenwood Avenue. Great American purchased a $1,400 policy on the Hope Watson property. After the mass murder charges were dismissed, each company was sued in separate trials that were eventually dismissed.

Each company declined to comment on the lawsuits or the disruption clauses, saying it is difficult to obtain information on policies written decades ago. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to say anything about the lawsuits and coverage that would have been available a century ago, according to a spokesman for The Hartford.

Williams allegedly funded the refurbishment of the Greenwood Cinema by selling cinemas it owned in other cities.


Greenwood Cultural Center/Getty Images

CNA Financial Corp.


Chubb Ltd.

The acquisitions would allow the two companies to gain control of policies named in half of the 96 insurance cases, 39 from CNA and nine from Chubb. CNA and Chubb declined to comment.

According to Robert Hartwig, an insurance researcher and director of the Center for Risk and Uncertainty Management at the University of South Carolina, riot clauses first appeared in the late 19th century. It was probably influenced by the tumultuous events of the Civil War and the fear of social conflict in the 19th century.

In the 1930s, insurance authorities began to simplify the wording of policies. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners proposed in 1937 to eliminate riot exemptions, as reported at that year’s annual convention. In the course of the proceeding it was argued that the riot exception was not necessary because producers exposed to the risk of labour unrest are often able to obtain riot insurance at no extra cost. The procedure also showed that disturbances rarely led to fires in buildings.

The assessment of risk associated with riots has paved the way for the industry to eliminate riot clauses, Hartwig said. Since the 1950s, he said, the police have regularly defeated many disasters such as riots and civil disturbances, including the riots of the 1960s and the national protests of 2020.

Dozens of businesses and homes were set on fire during the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.


Corbis/Getty Images

After the Greenwood massacre, some homeowners took out loans or mortgaged their property to rebuild. In 1941, the area had more than 240 businesses, according to a recent transcript of the neighborhood’s application to the National Register of Historic Places.

Williams’ Dreamland Theatre never seemed to return to its former prosperity, said Williams’ great-granddaughter, Jen Elaine Christopher, referring to a letter she wrote to her son William Danforth Williams in 1924 about the theater’s problems.

The whole family took care of it at first, says Mrs. Christopher. And in retrospect, it looks like she did it almost entirely on her own. So it was much smaller.

Several of Williams’ descendants said the trauma of the massacre played a role in her death in 1927 at the age of 47. Her husband, John Wesley Williams, owner of an auto repair shop in Greenwood, died in 1939. It is believed that the theater was sold after his death, but the family does not know the details of the sale. Today, part of the Interstate Highway is built where it once stood.

View of the main shopping street in Greenwood after the attacks.


GHI/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

-Leslie Scism contributed to this article.

Email Jared Council at [email protected].

Tulsa Massacre – 100 Years Later

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8In the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many have been scrutinized for their involvement with the private security firms that guard schools. However, some are now being criticized for not having any involvement, as they purchased policies that did not provide them with coverage for the crime. As a result, many business owners who are self-employed and pay their own insurance are now being forced to foot the bill for the shooting’s aftermath.. Read more about 1921 tulsa massacre lawsuit and let us know what you think.

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