President Biden visited Tulsa, Oklahoma on Tuesday (June 1) to commemorate the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, touring the Greenwood Cultural Center and meeting with the remaining three survivors of the violence — each a centenarian — that was spurred by a racist mob of whites that attacked a thriving Black community.
“For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness,” Biden said in remarks to a group of Tulsans assembled at the facility, noting that he’s the only president to visit the city in a century. “But just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean that it did not take place and while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing.”
Although known to scholars, historians and increasingly to the public over the years, many have gone unaware of the extent of the massacre, which is said to have killed at least 300 people, left 10,000 people homeless and created at least $25 million of property damage in today’s dollars. The centennial has brought renewed attention and an acknowledgement from public figures of the devastation wrought on May 31 and June 1, 1921.
“Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous they can’t be buried,” said Biden. “So it is here, only with truth can come healing and justice and repair…My fellow Americans, this was not a riot — this was a massacre.”
During his speech, Biden called for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which has not yet received approval in the House of Representatives, and also noted the White House plan to reinvest in minority businesses and the national infrastructure.
“I’m going to increase the share of the dollars the federal government spends to small, disadvantaged businesses including Black and Brown small businesses,” Biden said. “Right now that calls for 10 percent, I’m gonna move that to 15 percent.”
Biden paused for a moment of silence, noting that exhumations of victims of the massacre who had been buried in unmarked graves was taking place at that moment. Earlier, he had toured the Greenwood Cultural Center with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge, domestic policy adviser Susan Rice and senior adviser Cedric Richmond, according to CBS News.
During the tour, Biden also met with Viole Fletcher, 107; her brother Hughes Van Ellis, 100; and “Mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, who last month testified to Congress what happened to their homes and families and called for reparations for the damage. In his remarks on Tuesday, however, Biden did not directly address the question of reparations.
“I’ve come here to help fill the silence. Because in silence, wounds deepen,” said the president. “And only — as painful as it is — only in remembrance do wounds heal. We just have to choose to remember.”