In a speech memorializing the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, President Joe Biden urged Americans to come to terms with the nation’s dark history of racial violence, but stopped short of mentioning reparations for survivors and descendants.
Biden brought a national spotlight to Tulsa 100 years after a White mob burned the once-prosperous “Black Wall Street” to the ground and killed as many as 300 Black Tulsans, leaving thousands without homes.
And while much of the focus of the president’s speech centered around the Tulsa Race Massacre, Biden told Americans it was time to evaluate racism in the U.S., saying what happened in Greenwood “was an act of hate and domestic terrorism with a through line that exists today.” He drew parallels to a 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence. Cloaked in darkness,” Biden said. “But just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing.”
Activists, survivors and descendants have intensified calls for reparations ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and hoped Biden would address the idea.
Biden did not discuss any measures aimed specifically at Greenwood and did not call for reparations for survivors and descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre. However, White House officials said he does support a study on the broader issue of reparations.
Instead, the administration on Tuesday announced several national policies through its $2 trillion infrastructure plan that are geared toward shrinking the wealth gap between Black and White Americans. The initiatives focus on homeownership and business ownership for economically underserved and underdeveloped communities.
The president arrived in Tulsa on Tuesday afternoon, toured the Greenwood Cultural Center and met with the last three known living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre — Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle. Their ages range from 101 to 107.
Biden delivered the speech to a group of about 200 people, which included survivors, their families, community leaders and elected officials.
“My fellow Americans: This was not a riot. This was a massacre,” Biden said, describing the events.
During the speech, Biden said the story of Greenwood’s destruction isn’t only about a loss of life, but also a loss of living, wealth, posterity and possibility.
“Imagine all of those hotels and diners, and ma and pa shops that could have been passed down this past 100 years,” Biden said. “Imagine what could have been done for Black families in Greenwood.”
Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper said while she’s in favor of the initiatives Biden announced, she wished he would have touched more on the issue of reparations for descendants and survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
“Reparations is returning land ownership to its inhabitants — and cash — everything else is good policy,” Hall-Harper said. “A lot of what he (Biden) was talking about is going to be impacted by good policy, and we absolutely need that as well. But we need to address at the atonement side of these massacres in depth by way of reparations.”
Reparations have remained a contentious issue.
On Monday, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum issued a public apology for the destruction of Greenwood on behalf of the city. However, he said he does not want Tulsa to foot the bill for financial reparations because of the new tax burden it would create for residents.
Harper plans to introduce a resolution at the council’s meeting Wednesday to investigate whether the city should pay reparations to survivors and descendants.
Last week, the Race Massacre Centennial Commission abruptly canceled a memorial concert featuring John Legend and Stacey Abrams after a deal to provide payments fell apart when an attorney for survivors asked for more money.
Twenty years ago, a state commission tasked with investigating the massacre recommended reparations for survivors and their descendants, but city and state officials never took action.
When the commission first recommended reparations in 2001, 118 survivors and 176 descendants had been identified. But today, only three living survivors remain.
A 2003 lawsuit seeking restitution for survivors and descendants argued that the angry white mob that burned Greenwood had been deputized by local law enforcement and encouraged by city and state officials. Federal courts dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the statute of limitations had long since passed. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Legislation first introduced in Congress in 2007 would have removed the statute of limitations, but never gained momentum.
A Georgia congressman introduced a new bill last month after members of Congress gave survivors a standing ovation during a hearing where they recounted the trauma and financial loss from the massacre.
The remaining survivors and a handful of descendants filed a new lawsuit in September 2020.
Across Greenwood Avenue, in front of the historic Vernon AME Church, crowds lined the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of the president. Some waved flags, others used a loudspeaker to speak or sing about racial injustice both broadly and specifically in Oklahoma.
As Biden began to speak shortly after 3 p.m., many in the crowd outside began to huddle together in groups around cell phones to listen or watch a live stream of the president’s speech just across the street.
Hannibal B. Johnson, author and Black Wall Street historian, said Biden’s visit not only helps to bring attention to the event of the massacre itself, but to the history of Greenwood before, during and after.
“It’s much bigger than the massacre. To me, it’s about the human spirit ultimately,” Johnson said. “So the massacre is an event, but it’s important to remember who created this community, how they created it, what they did when it was destroyed, what they did when they resurrected it.”
Cash reparations for the destruction caused are only one facet of what it would take to repair the damage that was caused, Johnson said, while economic investment for Black-owned businesses, bold and accurate historical education and a turn away from White supremacy are all parts of moving forward.
After Biden’s remarks, which lasted about 40 minutes, Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said he was encouraged by what the president’s speech could mean for the push for reparations.
“What I heard him saying is we have an obligation to do something,” Nichols said. “And I think normalizing that kind of language is superduper important.”