President Joe Biden delivered remarks from Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre on Tuesday, making him the first U.S. president to participate in the remembrance of one of the darkest days in America’s racist history.
“For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness,” Biden said, speaking from Tulsa’s Greenwood Cultural Center. “But just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean that it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing.”
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot; this was a massacre,” he added, rejecting the “race riot” narrative long used to describe the events.
The 1921 massacre involved a violent white supremacist mob descending on Tulsa’s thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood, known as Black Wall Street because of its self-sufficient economy, to destroy homes and businesses and kill hundreds of Black people. Accounts of the attack are brutal: churches bombed, pregnant women brutalized, children murdered and at least 35 square city blocks razed.
Biden recounted the horrors in detail.
“In less than 24 hours, 1,100 Black homes and businesses were lost, and insurance companies rejected claims of damage,” Biden said. That financial impact, descendants of the victims say, has been felt for generations.
“Imagine all of those hotels and diners and mom-and-pop shops that could have been passed down this past 100 years,” Biden reflected.
What happened in the aftermath has caused even more pain. Officials brushed the massacre off as a “race riot” and declined to prosecute a single person, letting one of the country’s most horrific acts of white violence became a mere footnote in U.S. history lessons.
“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,” Biden said.
“We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or it doesn’t impact us today, because it does still impact us today,” he continued.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the city formed the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission in preparation for the 100th anniversary, upping the pressure on elected officials and other public figures to address what transpired that day. Now, Black Wall Street is hosting events with celebrities and politicians like Biden to commemorate the event, and millions of dollars are going toward tourism initiatives, including a $30 million museum about the massacre.
But the surviving victims of the attack and their descendants say they haven’t had any say in the commemorations, and they’re fighting for reparations. There are three known survivors of the 1921 massacre who are still living: Viola Fletcher, 107; Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106; and Hughes Van Ellis, 100, each of whom were at Biden’s speech Tuesday. All of them traveled to Washington, D.C., last month to testify about their experiences before a House subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties.
“We lost everything that day,” Fletcher said before lawmakers. “Our homes, churches, our newspapers, our theaters, our lives. Greenwood represented the best of what was possible for Black people in America and for all the people. No one cared about us for 100 years. We and our history have been forgotten, washed away.”
Biden noted that white hate continues to plague communities of color like Greenwood. “Terrorism from white supremacy is the most lethal threat to the homeland today,” he said. “Not ISIS, not al Qaeda. White supremacy.”
He also announced during his speech that his administration is launching new efforts toward black wealth creation, including a plan to crack down on racial discrimination in housing and increasing federal spending on assisting small, disadvantaged business, particularly those in Black communities.
Finally, he addressed some of the voter suppression bills that have moved through state legislatures in recent years, including a highly restrictive one being considered in Texas, which have a disproportionate effect on Black communities. Those efforts are “un-American,” Biden charged.
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