President Joe Biden will visit Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Tuesday to commemorate one of the bloodiest race massacres in U.S. history, 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.
Biden will deliver remarks on the 100th anniversary of the attack and speak to survivors who are now between the ages of 101 and 107. There are only three left. The White House issued a proclamation on Monday in which Biden urged Americans to “celebrate the tremendous loss of life and security that occurred over those two days in 1921, to celebrate the bravery and resilience of those who survived and sought to rebuild their lives again, and to commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed.”
Biden will promise the last survivors of the massacre that the nation will never forget the event, citing a history of Black perseverance and violent racist backlash. For a century, sitting U.S. presidents largely ignored the Tulsa race massacre of May 31, 1921, never prompting a trip specifically to honor those killed in the once-thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood until now.
President Warren G. Harding stated immediately after the massacre that he was “shocked” and hoped that “such a spectacle would never again be witnessed in this country,” a plea that the federal government did little to ensure. Following the Tulsa killings, incidents of racist violence continued for decades. According to Ellsworth, a commander-in-chief acknowledging “the worst single incident of racial violence in American history” is significant for the centennial and broader efforts to grapple with the nation’s past failures on racial equality.
Biden identified racial justice as one of his presidency’s four crises when he took office. Since taking office, the White House has worked hard to make racial equity a central tenet of its policymaking. For example, the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package included $5 billion in funding for Black farmers. As part of an effort to target minority firms, 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.
Biden also signed an executive order on his first day in office to advance racial justice and equity in the federal workforce.
Greenwood was given the moniker “Black Wall Street” by the Black educator Booker T. Washington in recognition of its thriving Black middle, upper, and professional classes, as well as the presence of Black-owned businesses on the streets. The neighborhood grew after O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner, purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa in 1906 and named it Greenwood after the Mississippi city. He established a boarding house for African Americans, made certain that land was only sold to African Americans, and provided loans for new business ventures.
During the Memorial Day weekend of 1921, a Black shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, 19, was falsely accused of attempting to rape Sarah Page, a white 17-year-old. Concerned that Rowland would be lynched, approximately 75 armed Black men converged on the courthouse to protect him. Around 1,500 white people confronted them. Despite the fact that the Black men retreated to Greenwood, the white mob pursued them, looting and burning homes and businesses and shooting Black residents at random. Around 300 people were killed, and the attack destroyed millions of dollars in personal wealth, including savings held in homes by residents who distrusted white-owned banks. Thousands of Black people have been made homeless.
This month, three living survivors testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee. Viola Fletcher, 107, was one of them, telling lawmakers, “I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our house.” House Democrats have promised to introduce legislation that would allow victims to seek restitution for the death and destruction that occurred on May 31 and June 1, 1921. In 2007, similar legislation was proposed but never passed.