WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden called for the USA to “come to terms” with the darkest moments of its history Tuesday during a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, 100 years after a white mob burned the city’s “Black Wall Street” to the ground, killing hundreds of Black Americans and forcing thousands from their homes.
Biden brought a national spotlight to the Tulsa Race Massacre, long neglected and glossed over in history books, becoming the first president to visit Tulsa on an anniversary of the bloodiest race massacre in U.S. history.
“I come here to help fill the silence. Because in silence, wounds deepen,” Biden said.
In a speech that bluntly talked about racism in America, Biden made a “through-line” from the massacre of Tulsa 100 years later to a weekend in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, which saw a white nationalist rally with tiki torches and racist chants.
He discussed Republican-led voting measures in state legislatures, saying the right to vote “is under assault with incredible intensity like I’ve never seen.” Biden announced Vice President Kamala Harris will lead an effort aimed at protecting voting rights.
Biden arrived in Tulsa in the afternoon, toured the Greenwood Cultural Center and meet with the three remaining survivors of the massacre, Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle, who are 101 to 107 years old.
“You are the three known remaining survivors seen in the mirror dimly. But no longer,” Biden said. “Now your story will be known in full view. The events we speak of today took place 100 years ago, and yet I’m the first president in 100 years ever to come to Tulsa.
Describing the events, Biden said, “Hell was unleashed. He noted how private planes dropped explosives on the Black neighborhood of Greenwood. And he said victims of the massacre were unable to get reimbursed for their losses through insurance and no one was prosecuted for taking part in the mob.
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre. Among the worst in our history but not the only one. And for too long, forgotten by our history. As soon as it happened, there was a clear effort to erase it from our memory, our collective memory.”
Biden announced a slate of policies meant to promote racial equity before the trip. That includes a new interagency effort meant to combat housing discrimination, as well as directives that will increase federal contracting with small, minority-owned businesses by $100 billion over the next five years.
“Harris tapped to lead voting rights push”
His tapping of Harris to oversee voting rights comes amid a showdown in Texas over Republican state lawmakers’ attempts to rewrite its election laws. Texas Democrats staged a walkout walked out of the Capitol to prevent voting on Senate Bill 7, which would limit certain ways of voting.
Harris said more than 380 bills have been introduced in legislatures nationwide that would make it harder for Americans to vote. In Congress, Biden supports the Democrat-backed H.R. 1 voting rights bill, but it lacks Republican support in the evenly divided Senate to overcome a potential filibuster.
“The work ahead of us is to make voting accessible to all American voters, and to make sure every vote is counted through a free, fair, and transparent process,” Harris said in a statement. “This is the work of democracy.
White people rampaged through a part of town known as Black Wall Street in 1921, killing hundreds of Black people and destroying homes, businesses and other personal property. The massacre largely went forgotten despite the extent of the violence, death and destruction visited upon Black citizens.
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.
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. Racist violence continued for decades after the killings in Tulsa.
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 USA, then moved the rally to a day later, June 20. Trump did not refer to the massacre in his remarks, making headlines instead by saying he wanted to slow down testing for the COVID-19 virus.
“For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean that it did not take place,” Biden said. “And while darkness can hide much, it can never erase what happened. That’s why we’re here: to shine a light, to make sure America knows the story in full.”
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, bought 40 acres of property in Tulsa in 1906 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 business ventures.
The massacre erupted over Memorial Day weekend of 1921 when a Black shoeshiner, 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.
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 more than $200 million in value adjusted for 2021.
“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,” said Scott Ellsworth, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.”
“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,” he said. “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 into Biden’s presidency, 89% of Black Americans say they approve of the job he is doing – more than any other racial group, according to a Pew Research Center poll. The administration’s 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 Floyd’s death May 25, remains with the Senate.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People criticized Biden for not including measures to combat student loan debt facing Black Americans among his steps aimed at racial equity
“You cannot begin to address the racial wealth gap without addressing the student loan debt crisis,” NAACP National President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “You just can’t address one without the other. Plain and simple. President Biden’s budget fails to address the student debt crisis.”
Lives lost, as well as decades of Black wealth
‘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.
Contributing: Carmen Forman and Chris Casteel of the Oklahoman
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison. Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.