A century after a white mob destroyed a vibrant African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, torching hundreds of homes and indiscriminately shooting people in the streets, President Joe Biden told a crowd of survivors and their families that the story of the massacre “would be known in full view.”
It was the first time a president had visited the area to address what happened 100 years ago in Greenwood, the African American community in Tulsa, that was the site of one of the worst outbreaks of racist violence in American history but one that went largely ignored in history books.
“For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence,” Biden told the crowd. “While darkness can hide much, it erases nothing.”
Biden, who has made racial equity and justice central themes of his presidency, was there to shed light on a painful part of the country’s history, by recalling in detail the horror that occurred between May 31 and June 1 in 1921, when angry whites descended on Greenwood, a prosperous part of Tulsa known as Black Wall Street, killing as many as 300 people and destroying more than 1,250 homes.
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot,” Biden said, as people in the crowd rose to their feet. “This was a massacre.”
A man was strapped to a pickup truck and dragged through the street, the president said. The bodies of a murdered family were draped over the fence outside their home. An older couple were shot while praying.
“We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened,” Biden told the crowd in Tulsa. “We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides.”
Biden’s visit was also intended to highlight steps his administration is taking to close the wealth gap between Black and white people in the United States, even as activists criticized him for not going far enough to correct historical wrongs and put the disadvantaged on equal footing.
On Monday evening, administration officials detailed efforts — timed to underscore the president’s visit to Tulsa — that would include efforts to direct more federal spending to small and minority-owned business, fair housing enhancements, and programs that are intended to repair the damage to neighborhoods divided by transportation projects.
Missing from the rollout was a plan to cancel student debt, which disproportionately affects Black students, or address the issue of reparations, federal repayments that relatives of Tulsa victims say could restore what was erased. White House officials have said that, as with the broader issue of reparations for Black Americans, the president supports a study of the issue.
The NAACP and other civil rights groups have criticized the administration for not taking the step to cancel student loans, saying it is one of the biggest obstacles holding Black people back from sharing in the wealth of other Americans.
“Student loan debt continues to suppress the economic prosperity of Black Americans across the nation,” Derrick Johnson, the NAACP president, said in a statement. “You cannot begin to address the racial wealth gap without addressing the student loan debt crisis.”
On the way to Tulsa, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House principal deputy press secretary, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the administration had provided, as part of its $1.7 trillion coronavirus plan, billions in funding to Black colleges as a way to make education more affordable, but did not answer questions about alleviating the financial stress of those currently suffering from student debt.
In a briefing for reporters Monday night, administration officials insisted that the other steps would help Black people around the country, particularly hard-hit communities like Greenwood.
Biden’s visit to Tulsa was a somber one. Before he delivered remarks, Biden met privately with survivors of the massacre, each between the ages of 101 and 107, whom he mentioned throughout his speech.
The massacre was sparked by the arrest of Dick Rowland, 19, a Black shoe shiner who was accused of assault against Sarah Page, 17, a white elevator operator. As Biden toured the Greenwood Culture Center, he was told that within 24 hours of that encounter, the mob that formed in the wake of Rowland’s arrest destroyed much of Greenwood. The case was later dismissed.
His trip came as the country struggles to confront police brutality toward Black people and other people of color following a year of Black Lives Matter protests around the country. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, and other similar episodes, galvanized the country.
But the political response to the recent killings remains uncertain. Biden had vowed to secure passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by May 25, the first anniversary of Floyd’s death. The bill would ban the use of chokeholds, impose restrictions on deadly force and make it easier to prosecute officers for wrongdoing. He missed that deadline, but lawmakers in both parties have expressed optimism that they will be able to reach a compromise on the legislation in the weeks ahead.
Despite investigations, no one was ever convicted of crimes related to the Tulsa massacre. Biden has promised that his Justice Department will be a more active participant in helping to root out bias and bigotry in American police departments. The department has already begun “pattern or practice” investigations in Louisville, Kentucky, and Minneapolis, which are intended to examine excessive force, biased policing and other misconduct by officers.