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Tulsa Race Massacre: Biden urges Americans to reflect on the ‘roots of racial terror in our nation’

President Joe Biden told Americans to reflect on the ‘roots of racial terror’ in a White House proclamation on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

‘I call upon the people of the United States to commemorate the tremendous loss of life and security that occurred over those 2 days in 1921, to celebrate the bravery and resilience of those who survived and sought to rebuild their lives again, and commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it,’ the president declared a day before his planned visit to Tulsa. 

‘Today, on this solemn centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, I call on the American people to reflect on the deep roots of racial terror in our Nation and recommit to the work of rooting out systemic racism across our country.’ 

The Tulsa race massacre, which saw 35 blocks of an affluent economic hub then-known as ‘Black Wall Street’ razed to the ground, has long been kept hidden in comparison with more well-known events in American history. Hundreds of men, women and children were killed by a group of white people resentful of Greenwood’s success. 

Federal lawmakers and civil rights leaders traveled to Tulsa on Monday where hundreds of people gathered to dedicate a prayer wall outside Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Attendees included Revs. Jessie Jackson and William Barber as well as multiple local faith leaders.

Although the church was nearly destroyed in the massacre, parishioners continued to meet in the basement, and it was rebuilt several years later, becoming a symbol of the resilience of Tulsa’s black community. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.

In his Memorial Day proclamation, Biden also blamed both the local and federal government for ‘laws and policies that made recovery nearly impossible’ after the two-day massacre. Those policies include ‘prohibitively expensive’ construction standards that made it difficult for black families to rebuild what they had lost, as well as redlining and the building of federal infrastructure that stunted the community’s ability to regrow.

Biden said his administration was ‘committed to acknowledging the role Federal policy played in Greenwood and other black communities.’

He vowed to invest in programs to help minority-owned small businesses grow, and in infrastructure programs that would now instead ‘increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice.’

Singling out three survivors still alive today, Biden promised he – and the American people – would never forget the events of 1921.

Tulsa massacre survivors 107-year-old Viola Fletcher (left) and 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis (second right) attend an event on the 100th anniversary 

Survivor Viola Fletcher is given flowers during a soil dedication ceremony for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre on Monday

Survivor Viola Fletcher is given flowers during a soil dedication ceremony for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre on Monday

Rev. Jesse Jackson meets people after the dedication of a prayer wall outside of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Greenwood - the neighborhood that was torched by a white mob in 1921

Rev. Jesse Jackson meets people after the dedication of a prayer wall outside of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Greenwood – the neighborhood that was torched by a white mob in 1921 

The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921

The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921

One of those survivors is a 107-year-old grandmother named Viola Fletcher. She was just seven years old when she witnessed the carnage.

‘The night of the massacre, I was awakened by my family. My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave and that was it. I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home,’ Fletcher said at a House Judiciary hearing earlier this month. Some lawmakers have ramped up calls for reparations for survivors and their families in the lead-up to the 100th anniversary.

‘I still see black men being shot, black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams,’ she said. 

Fletcher and the two other survivors still alive today, 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis and 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, as well as victims’ descendants, were honored at a soil dedication ceremony at Stone Hill Monday. Fletcher and Ellis, who are siblings, were present. 

Federal lawmakers and civil rights leaders traveled to Tulsa on Monday where hundreds of people gathered to dedicate a prayer wall outside Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church

Federal lawmakers and civil rights leaders traveled to Tulsa on Monday where hundreds of people gathered to dedicate a prayer wall outside Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church

Hundreds of mourners and massacre victims' descendants were joined by federal lawmakers and civil rights leaders like Rev. Jessie Jackson and Senator Chris Coons

Hundreds of mourners and massacre victims’ descendants were joined by federal lawmakers and civil rights leaders like Rev. Jessie Jackson and Senator Chris Coons

Siblings Fletcher and Ellis were honored at a soil dedication ceremony at Stone Hill Monday

Siblings Fletcher and Ellis were honored at a soil dedication ceremony at Stone Hill Monday

Monday’s commemorations were supposed to end with a high-profile event at ONEOK Field called ‘Remember & Rise’ before it was suddenly canceled just days before. Singer-songwriter John Legend was set to headline the event, which was also slated to feature a keynote speech from Stacey Abrams.

The star-studded tribute was called off after a lawyer representing survivors demanded $1 million for each of them to appear, as well as a $50 million reparations fund for descendants.

The commission behind the event say they hope to reschedule and expressed disappointment over the cancelation, but encouraged people to attend other memorials occurring that day.

Biden's  visit to Tulsa will come 100 years after the massacre's second day. He is pictured here delivering remarks at a Memorial Day service.

Biden’s  visit to Tulsa will come 100 years after the massacre’s second day. He is pictured here delivering remarks at a Memorial Day service.

The massacre caught wide national attention when former President Donald Trump initially planned a campaign rally in Oklahoma City last year on Juneteenth, another important date for black Americans fighting for equality, which was less than three weeks after the race riot’s 99th anniversary. He rescheduled the event after widespread criticism.

Biden’s Tuesday visit will come 100 years after the massacre’s second day. Members of the Congressional black Caucus are also expected to attend. 

The president will tour the Greenwood Cultural Center and meet with the three living survivors of the massacre. He is also set to deliver remarks while in Tulsa. 

It comes a week after Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, introduced the ‘Tulsa Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act,’ which would help victims and their descendants seek reparations from the government.

THE 1921 TULSA RACE RIOT: AN ATTACK ON ‘BLACK WALL STREET’ IN GREENWOOD 

After World War I, Tulsa was recognized for its affluent African-American community known as the Greenwood District. 

The community was often referred to as the ‘Black Wall Street’ because of its thriving businesses and residential area, but in June 1921, the community was nearly destroyed during the Tulsa Race Riot. 

The events leading up to the riot began on May 30, 1921, when a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator with a woman named Sarah Page. 

The details of what followed vary from person to person and it’s unclear what actually happened, but Rowland was arrested the next day by Tulsa police, with reports suggesting Rowland assaulted Page.

During the Tulsa Riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed and more than 800 people were treated for injuries. Historians believe as many as 300 people may have died in the riot

During the Tulsa Riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed and more than 800 people were treated for injuries. Historians believe as many as 300 people may have died in the riot

Subsequently, a report in the Tulsa Tribune dated May 31, 1921 was published that night with an accompanying editorial stating that a lynching was planned for that night.

This started a confrontation between black and white armed men at the courthouse, with the white men demanding that Rowland be lynched while the black men tried to protect him.

During a struggle between two men in the mobs over a gun, shots were fired and a white man was shot, causing the the African-American group to retreat to the Greenwood District.

In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by an estimated 10,000 white rioters, who flooded into the streets shooting residents. Planes also reportedly dropped incendiary bombs on the area.

Many of the white mob had recently returned from World War I and trained in the use of firearms, are are said to have shot Black Americans on sight.

Pictured: Part of Greenwood District burning during the Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, June 1921. More than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed. The picture caption above says 'Burning of Church Where Ammunition was Stored-During Tulsa Race Riot-6-1-21'

Pictured: Part of Greenwood District burning during the Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, June 1921. More than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed. The picture caption above says ‘Burning of Church Where Ammunition was Stored-During Tulsa Race Riot-6-1-21’

In addition, more than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed, and nearly 10,000 people were left homeless. 

The riots lasted for two days, and Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops were called in to Tulsa. 

During the riot, 35 city blocks were completely destroyed. Historians believe as many as 300 people may have died in the riot – mostly Black Americans -and more than 800 people were treated for injuries.

Bodies were buried in mass graves while families of those who were killed in the riots were held in prison under martial law according to Scott Ellsworth, a University of Michigan historian, in December.

The families of the deceased were never told whether their loved ones died in the massacre, or where they were buried, and no funerals were held. 

Until the 1990s, the massacre was rarely mentioned in history books, and in 2001, the Race Riot Commission was organized to review the details of the deadly riot. 

 Source: Tulsa History.org


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