Biden vows to 'fill the silence' over 1921 massacre of black Americans

US president vows efforts to help with inequality in speech memorialising racist killings

Joe Biden on Tuesday became the first sitting US president to visit the site in Tulsa, Oklahoma where hundreds of black Americans were massacred by a white mob in 1921, as he marked the country's legacy of racial violence.

Mr Biden called for a moment of silence for the victims after meeting three people who lived in the district during the massacre — Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle — and toured a museum dedicated to the incident.

"For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence," Mr Biden said.

"My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre, and among the worst in our history. But not the only one."

Mr Biden said black Americans' "sacred rights" to vote are under "assault with incredible intensity like I've never seen".

He announced Tuesday that he was appointing Vice President Kamala Harris to lead efforts on voting rights as Republicans carry out efforts to pass laws restricting access to the ballot.

Republicans portray such legislation as preventing fraudulent voting, but many critics believe it is designed to limit the voting of minorities.

"I just want him to feel our pain," local activist Kristi Williams said before Mr Biden's visit.

The Democratic leader, who has benefited from strong support among black voters, said she would attend Tuesday's commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre.

Ms Williams, who is descended from some of the massacre victims, wants Mr Biden to "do us right".

"This country, right now, has an opportunity to right this wrong."

On May 31, 1921, a group of black men went to the Tulsa courthouse to defend a young African-American man accused of assaulting a white woman.

They found themselves facing a mob of hundreds of furious white people.

Tension surged and shots were fired, and the African Americans retreated to their neighbourhood, Greenwood.

The next day, at dawn, white men looted and burnt the neighbourhood, which was at the time so prosperous it was called Black Wall Street.

As with the economic losses, the human toll is difficult to estimate, but historians say that as many as 300 African-American residents were killed and about 10,000 people were left homeless.

In 2001, a commission created to study the killings concluded that the Tulsa authorities armed some of the white rioters.

"The federal government must reckon with and acknowledge the role that it has played in stripping wealth and opportunity from black communities" such as Greenwood, Mr Biden said on Monday.

U.S. President Joe Biden tours the Greenwood Cultural Center during a visit to mark the centennial anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S., June 1, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
US President Joe Biden tours the Greenwood Cultural Centre during a visit to mark the centennial anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Reuters

Mr Biden has pledged to help combat racism in policing and other areas and he has called on Congress to act swiftly to address policing reform, but he has also long projected himself as an ally of police, who are struggling with criticism of tactics and difficulties in recruitment.

Residents expect further action from a president who has cautiously declared support for looking into financial reparations for black people.

Mr Biden, who was vice president to the nation’s first black president and who chose a black woman as his own vice president, backs a study of reparations, both in Tulsa and more broadly, but has not committed to supporting payments.

The president, who was joined by Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge and senior advisers Susan Rice and Cedric Richmond, also announced new measures to help narrow the wealth gap between blacks and whites and reinvest in underserved communities by expanding access to homeownership and small-business ownership.

This country, right now, has an opportunity to right this wrong

Kristi Williams, Community Activist

The White House said the administration will take steps to address disparities that result in black-owned homes being appraised at tens of thousands of dollars less than comparable homes owned by whites as well as the goal of increasing the share of federal contracts awarded to small disadvantaged businesses by 50 per cent by 2026.

In this city in Oklahoma, once a slave-owning territory and a former stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, the effects of the massacre are still felt.

"When tourists visit Tulsa, one of the things that they say is that they can't believe how segregated it still is or how racism is so evident," said Michelle Brown, who runs educational programmes at a cultural centre.

Billie Parker, 50, an African-American woman, said Tulsa was the same as when she was growing up there.

"It hasn't changed. We're still separated," Ms Parker said.

People pray as they hold their hands on a prayer wall outside of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Greenwood neighbourhood. AP
People pray as they hold their hands on a prayer wall outside of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Greenwood neighbourhood. AP

Many in Greenwood say it is time for the state to help the neighbourhood regain its prosperity, which was burnt to ashes in the fires of 1921.

"There's nothing here but grass, but there was investment, there was wealth, there was life," said Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democratic representative.

Ms Jackson Lee is the chief sponsor of a bill on federal slavery reparation payments to African Americans.

In mid-April, a US congressional committee voted to advance the bill to the House of Representatives.

The 2001 commission recommended that Greenwood residents receive compensation. But so far, reparations have not been paid.

Tulsa massacre survivor Viola Fletcher attends a soil dedication ceremony for victims in the Oklahoma city. Bloomberg
Tulsa massacre survivor Viola Fletcher attends a soil dedication ceremony for victims in the Oklahoma city. Bloomberg

Beyond financial compensation, city residents are counting on Mr Biden's visit and the ceremony for the massacre's 100th anniversary to bring more attention to the killings, which have long remained taboo.

For LaShaundra Haughton, 51, the great-granddaughter of some of the massacre survivors: "It is time to heal, it is time to tell the truth, it is time to bring everything to light."

“Just because history is silent, it does not mean that it did not take place,” Mr Biden said. He said that “hell was unleashed. Literal hell was unleashed.” And now, he said, the nation must come to grips with the following sin of denial.

“We can’t just choose what we want to know and not what we should know,” Mr Biden said.

Updated: June 2, 2021 04:59 PM

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