Joe Biden has become the first sitting president of the United States to visit the site in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where hundreds of Black Americans were killed by a white mob in 1921, saying the US must learn from one of the worst episodes of racist violence in the country’s history.
The Democrat marked the centenary of the mass killing by meeting the few remaining survivors of the violence on Tuesday.
“This was not a riot, this was a massacre,” Biden said in a speech to survivors and their descendants. “(It was) among the worst in our history – but not the only one and, for too long, forgotten by our history.
“As soon as it happened, there was a clear effort to erase it from our collective memories … for a long time the schools in Tulsa didn’t even teach it, let alone schools elsewhere.”
White residents in Tulsa shot and killed as many as 300 Black people on May 31 and June 1, 1921 and burned and looted homes and businesses, after a white woman accused a Black man of assault, an allegation that was never proven.
The rampage devastated the African American community of Greenwood, at the time so prosperous it was called Black Wall Street. Historians say early 10,000 people were left homeless.
But insurance companies did not cover the damage and no one was charged for the violence.
Biden said the legacy of racist violence and white supremacy continued to resonate in the US.
“We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do,” he said. “They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.”
Biden said the deadly January 6 assault on the US Capitol and efforts by a number of states to restrict voting rights were echoes of the same problem.
“What happened in Greenwood was an act of hate and domestic terrorism, with a through-line that exists today,” Biden said.
Biden said one of the survivors of the attack was reminded of it earlier this year when far-right supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol while Congress was certifying Biden’s 2020 election win.
Earlier, the White House announced a set of policy initiatives to counter racial inequality, including plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in communities like Greenwood that suffer from persistent poverty, as well as efforts to combat housing discrimination.
Families of the affected Oklahoma residents have pushed for financial reparations, a measure Biden has only committed to studying further.
Biden said his administration would soon also unveil measures to counter hate crimes and white supremacist violence that he said the intelligence community has concluded is “the most lethal threat to the homeland.”
He also entrusted Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black American and first Asian American to hold that office, to lead his administration’s efforts to counter Republican efforts to restrict voting rights.
Multiple Republican-led states, arguing for a need to bolster election security, have passed or proposed voting restrictions, which Biden and other Democrats say are aimed at making it harder for Black voters to cast ballots.
There was “an unprecedented assault on our democracy,” Biden said, promising to fight for voters’ rights. “This sacred right is under assault with incredible intensity like I’ve never seen.”
Biden oversaw a moment of silence for the Tulsa victims after meeting three people who lived in Greenwood during the mass killing, Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle.
Now between the ages of 101 and 107, the survivors addressed Congress earlier this year, asking for “justice” and that the country recognise their suffering. They are also parties to a lawsuit against state and local officials seeking remedies for the mass killing, including a victims’ compensation fund.
In 2001, a commission created to study the tragedy concluded that Tulsa authorities themselves had armed some of the white rioters and recommended reparations be paid.
The mayor of Tulsa formally apologised this week for the city government’s failure to protect the community.
Biden did not answer a reporter’s question about whether there should be an official presidential apology for the killings.
The president “supports a study of reparations, but believes first and foremost the task in front of us is to root out systemic racism,” spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Biden, who is popular with Black Americans, travelled to Tulsa amid a racial reckoning in the US, which has gathered momentum since last year’s murder of George Floyd, a Black man who suffocated under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, sparking protests across the country and elsewhere in the world.
Biden made tackling racial inequality a key platform of his 2020 campaign and has done the same since taking office. He met members of Floyd’s family last week on the anniversary of his death and is pushing for passage of a police reform bill that bears Floyd’s name.
But Biden’s track record on issues of race is complex. He came under fire during the 2020 campaign for opposition to school bus programmes in the 1970s that helped integrate American schools. He also sponsored a 1994 crime bill that civil rights experts say contributed to a rise in mass incarceration and has defended his work with two Southern segregationist senators during his days in the US Senate.
His trip on Tuesday offered a sharp contrast to a year ago, when Trump, a Republican who criticised Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements, planned a political rally in Tulsa on June 19, the ‘Juneteenth’ anniversary that celebrates the end of US slavery in 1865. The rally was postponed after being criticised.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, once a slave-owning state and a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, racial disparities remain stark.
There are marked inequalities between the northern part of Tulsa, which is predominantly Black, and the south, which is mostly white.
Local activist Kristi Williams, who is descended from some of the victims of the killings, told the AFP news agency she wanted Biden to “do us right”.
“It’s been 100 years, and we have been impacted negatively, from housing, economic development, our land has been taken,” she said. “This country, right now has an opportunity to right this wrong.”
Public awareness about the killings in Tulsa, which were not taught in history classes or reported by newspapers for decades, has grown in recent years.
“It is necessary that we share with each generation the past and the significant imperfection of inequality,” said Frances Jordan-Rakestraw, the executive director of the Greenwood Cultural Center, a museum about the killing visited by Biden.