On Tuesday, Joe Biden became the first sitting American president to commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of a prosperous Black community by a white mob that left up to 300 people dead and 10,000 homeless.
"Just because history is silent, it doesn't mean that it did not take place," Biden said in remarks to survivors of the massacre and their families at the Greenwood Cultural Center. "Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they can't be buried, no matter how hard people try."
A hundred years ago on May 31 and June 1, Greenwood, a neighborhood including what was then known as Black Wall Street, was looted and burned to the ground by Tulsa's white residents with support from the virtually all-white Tulsa Police Department. The massacre was triggered by accusations that a 19-year-old Black man had assaulted a 17-year-old white girl in an elevator.
For decades after the massacre, the violent attack was covered up and not well known nationally. But as the national conversation increasingly focused on the issue of systemic racism and police violence, the incident has received more attention in the media and pop culture.
Biden met with three surviving members of the massacre — Viola "Mother" Fletcher, Hughes "Uncle Red" Van Ellis and Lessie "Mother Randle" Benningfield Randle — who are all now over 100 years old.
"My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre," Biden said, after leading a moment of silence for the victims.
The president announced steps to narrow the racial wealth gap. His administration plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in disadvantaged communities, expand federal contracting with minority-owned businesses, and repeal two Trump-era rules that restrict fair housing practices.
The Tulsa massacre's centennial came just over a year since the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer — an event that triggered the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and around the world. For months, Republicans and Democrats have struggled to reach consensus on police reform legislation activists have pushed since Floyd's death.
Activists said Biden's visit serves to communicate the history and reality of the oppression of African Americans. "And, really, the erasure of black wealth and an all-out racial domestic terrorist attack within this country," said Steve Phillips, founder of the political media organization Democracy in Color and author of the book Brown Is the New White. "People need to know that that is part of what this country's history has been."
But Phillips said the steps the Biden administration is taking to address the racial wealth gap is not nearly enough to address a problem. In the century since the massacre in Tulsa, Black Americans continue to be discriminated in housing, banking, education and employment. According to government data, the typical white family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family. The racial wealth gap has widened further during the pandemic.
A 2001 report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 recommended that reparations be paid to survivors and their descendants.
During his remarks, Biden, who campaigned on a pledge to address systemic racism, did not mention reparations. Nor did he mention a bill to study reparations for slavery, known as H.R. 40.
The legislation, first introduced in 1989, would establish a commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.
"What is owed to African Americans who did the labor to pick the cotton that got sold that made America wealthy?" Phillips said. "And that we've been locked out of for most of the country's history from participating in the economic largesse?"
The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act was introduced again by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, in January 2021. Lee said the descendants of slaves continue to suffer from the legacy of that brutal system.
Biden's visit comes as many conservative states, including Texas, are pushing for voting legislation that supporters say would reduce fraud. Critics, however, see it as undermining Black and other minority voters. The president criticized those state laws in his remarks. "This sacred right is under assault with incredible intensity like I've never seen," he said.
Biden said he will "fight like heck" for the Senate to pass the For the People Act, a federal voting-rights bill passed by the House of Representatives in March that would counteract many of the voting restrictions passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures. Republicans have called the bill a "power grab."
Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the administration's efforts on voting rights, Biden said.