Washington Correspondent US president Joe Biden pledged to close the United States’ racial wealth gap as he visited the site of the Tulsa race massacre in Oklahoma yesterday.
In a visit to mark the 100-year anniversary of the events of June 1st, 1921, when hundreds of black residents were killed and businesses destroyed by a white mob, Mr Biden spoke in emotional terms about the massacre that left the Greenwood area of the city in ruins.
Outlining how Tulsa was once a thriving commercial district, he described the events of 100 years ago, when “hell was unleashed”. “One night changed everything,” he said, describing in detail how a white mob singled out black individuals and families for murder, and bodies were dumped in mass graves.
“Smoke darkened the Tulsa sky, rising from 35 blocks of Greenwood that were left in ash and ember, razed in rumble. In less than 24 hours, 1,100 black homes and businesses were lost. Insurance companies rejected claims of damage. Ten thousand people were left destitute and homeless, placed in internment camps.”
Viola Fletcher (centre left) and Hughes Van Ellis (centre right), survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, attend a soil collection ceremony to honour the remaining unknown victims of the massacre. Photograph: Joshua Rashaad McFadden/The New York Times
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot, this was a massacre,” he said, a reference to the fact that the event was for a long time referred to as the Tulsa riots. “For too long, forgotten by our history. As soon as it happened there was a clear effort to erase it from our collective memory. For a long time schools in Tulsa didn’t even teach it, let alone schools elsewhere.”
But, he said: “Just because history was silent it did not mean it did not take place.”
“Some injustices are so heinous that they cannot be buried,” he said, noting that he was the first president in 100 years to visit the site. “We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides.”
Ahead of his address, Mr Biden toured the Greenwood cultural centre and met with three survivors of the massacre – Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle, aged between 101 and 107.
Mr Biden also outlined measures his administration would take to address the racial inequality that persists in the United States.
Noting that the percentage of black home ownership is lower today than 50 years ago, he said: “That’s wrong, and we’re committing to change that.” He announced a new initiative to address the home appraisal system in order to combat housing discrimination.
He also committed to increase the number of federal contracts awarded to small businesses from disadvantaged communities, noting that black entrepreneurs get fewer opportunities than white Americans.
The White House also highlighted measures contained within Mr Biden’s infrastructure plan, including a new $10 billion (€8 billion) revitalisation fund and $15 billion in grants to improve transportation in disadvantaged areas.
He also referenced recent efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to limit voting access in elections. Quoting the late civil rights leader John Lewis, who described the right to vote as “precious,” Mr Biden said: “this sacred right is under an intense assault that I have never seen. It’s simply un-American.”
He also tapped vice president Kamala Harris to lead efforts to tackle the issue of voting rights.
Hope and history
The president concluded his speech by quoting Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy. Referencing the line “hope and history rhyme,” he concluded: “Let’s make it rhyme.”
The location of Mr Biden’s announcements about rebooting the black economy was richly symbolic. The Greenwood area of Tulsa was once known as “black Wall Street” before the attacks of 1921, which destroyed the once-thriving commercial centre.