WASHINGTON — One hundred years after a white mob burned “Black Wall Street” to the ground, killing hundreds of African Americans and forcing thousands from their homes, President Joe Biden will visit Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Tuesday to commemorate one of the bloodiest race massacres in U.S. history.
Biden will deliver remarks on the 100-year anniversary and speak to survivors of the attack, who are now between the ages of 101 and 107. Only three remain.
On Monday, the White House issued a proclamation in which Biden called on Americans “to commemorate the tremendous loss of life and security that occurred over those 2 days in 1921, to celebrate the bravery and resilience of those who survived and sought to rebuild their lives again, and commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it.”
Tracing a history of Black perseverance, and violent racist backlash, Biden will pledge to the last survivors of the massacre that the nation will never forget the event.
“We honor the legacy of the Greenwood community and of Black Wall Street by reaffirming our commitment to advance racial justice through the whole of our government, and working to root out systemic racism from our laws, our policies, and our hearts,” the statement reads.
For a century, the Tulsa race massacre of May 31, 1921, went largely ignored by sitting U.S. presidents, never prompting a trip specifically to honor those killed in the once-thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood until now.
Immediately after the massacre, President Warren G. Harding said he was “shocked” and hoped that “such a spectacle would never again be witnessed in this country,” a plea the federal government did little to ensure. Subsequent incidents of racist violence continued for decades after the wholesale killings in Tulsa.
Former President Donald Trump visited Tulsa last June for his first campaign rally amid the coronavirus pandemic. He faced criticism for initially scheduling it on Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. But Trump did not reference the massacre in his remarks that made headlines instead for saying he wanted to slow down testing for the COVID-19 virus.
“This is very, very significant that the president of the United States is coming here,” said Scott Ellsworth, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” a comprehensive history of the massacre. “Everyone I’ve spoken to in the community has supported this.”
A commander-in-chief acknowledging “the worst single incident of racial violence in American history,” according to Ellsworth, is significant for the focus Biden’s visit will put on the centennial and broader efforts to grapple with the nation’s past failings on racial equality.
“The Black citizens of Tulsa were let down by their city government, by their state government but they were also let down by the federal government in this massacre,” Ellsworth said.
“There was never any sort of federal investigation despite the fact that over 1,000 Black homes and businesses were burned to the ground and more than 10,000 people were made homeless. The federal government never stepped in and tried to figure out what happened.”
US racism part of past and present for Biden
At roughly 100 days in, 89% of Black Americans said they approved of the job Biden was doing as president — more than any other racial group — according to a Pew Research Center poll. However, the administration’s ongoing responses, particularly regarding economic inequality and criminal justice will be closely watched. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which many had touted would pass by the anniversary of his death May 25, remains with the Senate.
At the start of his presidency, Biden identified racial justice as one of the four crises of his presidency. Since taking office, the White House has sought to make racial equity a cornerstone of its policymaking.
The $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, for instance, included $5 billion in funding for Black farmers. The administration also changed policies at the Small Business Administration that prioritized loans through the Paycheck Protection Program to firms with fewer than 20 employees as part of an effort to target minority firms.
On his first day in office, Biden also signed an executive order meant to advance racial justice and equity within the federal workforce.
The White House has been criticized by some racial justice advocates for not going far enough in advancing some police reform and other progressive measures, though activists have conceded Biden officials are more responsive than past administrations on the issue.
Lives lost, as well as decades of Black wealth
The massacre erased decades of Black wealth accumulated in Tulsa and hamstrung wealth creation going forward. Various estimates determine the amount of wealth lost to be over $200 million in value adjusted for 2021.
“In terms of poverty, unemployment, infant mortality, all of those statistics, the city is still haunted by that massacre. And the tragedy created an economic trough that Black Americans have still yet to get out of,” Ellsworth said.
The Black educator Booker T. Washington coined the name “Black Wall Street” for Greenwood in recognition of thriving Black middle, upper and professional classes with Black-owned businesses dotting the streets.
The neighborhood sprouted after O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner, in 1906 bought 40 acres of property in Tulsa and named it after the Mississippi city Greenwood. He started a boarding house for African Americans, ensured land was sold only to Black people and provided loans for new business ventures.
The massacre erupted over Memorial Day weekend of 1921 when a Black shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, 19, was falsely accused of attempting to rape Sarah Page, 17, who was white. Fearing Rowland would be lynched, about 75 armed Black men converged on the courthouse to guard him. They were confronted by about 1,500 white people.
Although the Black men retreated to Greenwood, the white mob followed, looting and burning homes and businesses, and shooting Black residents at random. About 300 people died, and the attack destroyed millions in personal wealth, including savings that were kept in homes by residents who mistrusted white-owned banks. Thousands of Black people were left homeless.
‘I have lived through the massacre every day’
The three living survivors testified this month before a House Judiciary subcommittee. Among them, Viola Fletcher, 107, told lawmakers, “I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our house.”
“I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.”
House Democrats have promised to introduce legislation that would allow victims to pursue a path to seek damages for the death and destruction that occurred on May 31 and June 1 of 1921. Similar legislation was proposed but never approved in 2007.
Fletcher told the subcommittee members they have “the power to lead us down a better path.”
“Open the courtroom doors to us,” she said.
Although former President Barack Obama did not commemorate the massacre in Tulsa, he recognized Olivia Hooker, one of the survivors, in 2015 as part of his commencement address to the Coast Guard Academy. Hooker, the first African American woman to serve in the Coast Guard, died in 2018 at 103 years old.
Contributing: Carmen Forman and Chris Casteel of the Oklahoman.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison. Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.