President Joe Biden commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre by visiting the city and announcing new efforts to combat “white supremacy” and increase federal spending on minority-owned businesses.
Speaking from the Tulsa’s Greenwood Cultural Center after visiting with the three remaining survivors of the massacre of black citizens, Biden noted he was the first sitting President to visit the Oklahoma location, something he said he did to help erase the “silence” around the dark event, which he described in detail.
The Tulsa destruction began when a young black man named Dick Rowland was falsely accused of rape by a white woman. With a white mob demanding the Sheriff turn him over, dozens of black citizens showed up to guard Rowland at his trial. After being turned away, they returned in greater numbers only for things to descend into violence with a mob of white people. The chaos led to the destruction of the Greenwood neighbourhood, referred to as “Black Wall Street” thanks to its thriving black-owned businesses. The Greenwood district in Tulsa came to be known as “Black Wall Street”, one of the most commercially successful and affluent majority African – American communities in the United States. Booker T. Washington referred to the Greenwood neighborhood as “Negro Wall Street.”
The massacre began during the Memorial Day weekend on 31st May, after 19-year-old Dick, a Black shoe shiner boy, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, the 17-year-old White elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building. He was immediately taken into custody. After the arrest, rumours spread through the city that Rowland was to be lynched. Upon hearing reports that a mob of hundreds of ‘White’ men had gathered around the jail where Rowland was being kept, a group of 75 Black men, some of whom were armed, arrived at the jail in order to ensure that Rowland would not be lynched.
The city Sheriff persuaded the group to leave the jail, assuring them that he had the situation under control. A shot was fired, and then, according to the reports of the Sheriff, “all hell broke loose.” At the end of the exchange of fire, 12 people were dead, 10 White and 2 Black. As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded.
White rioters rampaged through the Black neighbourhood that night and the next morning, killing men and burning and looting stores and homes. Around noon on June 1, the Oklahoma National Guard imposed martial law, ending the massacre.
About 10,000 Black people were left homeless and property damage amounted to more than US$ 1.5 Million in real estate and US$ 750,000 in personal property (equivalent to US$ 32.65 Million in 2020). Many survivors left Tulsa, while Black and White residents who stayed in the city kept silent about the terror, violence and resulting losses for decades. The massacre was largely omitted from local, state and national histories.
In 1996, 75 years after the massacre, a bipartisan group in the state legislature authorised the formation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission’s final report, published in 2001, states that the city had conspired with the mob of White citizens against Black citizens; it recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants. The state passed legislation to establish scholarships for the descendants of survivors, encourage the economic development of Greenwood, and develop a park in memory of the victims of the massacre in Tulsa. The park was dedicated in 2010. In 2020, the massacre became a part of the Oklahoma school curriculum.
Many servicemen returned to Tulsa following the end of the First World War in 1918, and as they tried to re-enter the labour market, social tensions and anti-Black sentiment increased in cities where job competition was high. Northeastern Oklahoma was in an economic slump that increased unemployment. The American Civil War, which ended in 1865, was still in living memory; civil rights for African Americans were lacking and the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent (primarily through the wildly popular 1915 film The Birth of a Nation).
Since 1915, the Ku Klux Klan had been growing in urban chapters across the country. Its first significant appearance in Oklahoma occurred on August 12, 1921. By the end of 1921, 3,200 of the Tulsa’s 72,000 residents were Klan members according to one estimate. In the early 20th century, lynching were common in the Oklahoma as part of a continuing effort to assert and maintain white supremacy. By 1921, at least 31 people, mostly men and boys, had been lynched in the newly formed state; 26 were Black.
At the same time, Black veterans pushed to have their civil rights enforced, believing they had earned full citizenship by military service. In what became known as the “Red Summer” of 1919, industrial cities across the Midwest and Northeast experienced severe race riots in which Whites, sometimes including local authorities, attacked Black communities. In Chicago and some other cities, Blacks defended themselves for the first time with force but were often outnumbered.
Numerous homes and shops were destroyed and black citizens were killed, some even by private planes dropping bombs. The true death count from the day is not known, but some have estimated that it could be higher than 300.
“This was not a riot. It was a massacre,” Biden said to applause, dismissing the long-held narrative that the events were a “race riot.”
“Imagine all of those hotels and diners and mom-and-pop shops that could have been passed down this past 100 years,” he later added, before announcing efforts to help in “black wealth creation,” including increasing federal contracts to “black or brown owned” businesses by 50% as well as combating the “racial discrimination in housing,” noting black home ownership is lower today than 50 years ago.
“We’re committed to changing that,” he said.
Among his administration’s other efforts is setting aside US$ 10 Billion in infrastructure spending to go to rebuilding roads, schools, etc. in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The President also said he was putting Vice President Kamala Harris, who does not do anything worthwhile, in charge of an effort to push back against new voting laws in various states he claims are trying to suppress the “right to vote.” Biden did not go into specifics, but said he would have more details about his plan in the coming days.
He wrapped his commemoration by comparing the “hate” at the center of the Tulsa Massacre, as well as voting rights issues, to more recent events such as the 2017 Charlottesville riot and Capitol riot – done by a mob of “violent white extremist thugs,” according to Biden – on January 6, which led to the death of five people, though he did mistakenly say the latter took place on January 9.
“Terrorism from white supremacy is the most lethal threat to the homeland today,” Biden claimed, citing concerns from US intelligence communities.
Was the Capitol Hill riot on 6th or 9th, old President with dementia, does not remember!