President Biden on Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of one of the worst acts of racist violence in U.S. history by touring the part of Tulsa once known as “Black Wall Street,” condemning White supremacy and outlining steps to promote minority-owned businesses, saying too many hurdles remain a century after the tragedy.
He also took a thinly veiled swiped at well-known members of his own party, suggesting a pair of senators are holding back his voting rights agenda and other efforts.
Mr. Biden, who has made racial equity a cornerstone of his agenda, met privately with three centenarians who survived the massacre in the Greenwood District, where a White mob in 1921 killed an estimated 300 Black residents and left thousands more homeless in the May 31-June 1 attack. He later held a moment of silence for the dead.
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre,” Mr. Biden said to applause from an audience of 200 at the Greenwood Cultural Center that included families of survivors and high-profile civil rights leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
The attack was largely kept out of history books, but the economic fallout and segregation continued to harm Black Tulsans. Mr. Biden said great nations must “come to terms with their dark sides.”
“For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. Just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean it did not take place,” the president said. “We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know, and not what we should know.”
Mr. Biden used the visit to announce measures aimed at rooting out discrimination in home appraisals and increasing the share of federal contracts going to minority-owned businesses by 50% by 2026, or an additional $100 billion over five years.
He said the measures will allow families to build equity and generational wealth through homeownership and will promote minority entrepreneurship.
Mr. Biden slammed Republican-run states looking to tighten election laws after then-President Trump’s loss in November, saying he has asked Vice President Kamala Harris to shepherd the effort to pass voting-rights protections into law, “among her many other responsibilities.”
And he appeared to lash out at Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, saying he has thin majorities in Congress but there are “two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”
Historians say the Tulsa massacre was sparked by a confrontation over a Black teenager named Dick Rowland who was arrested on suspicion that he assaulted a White woman on an elevator. Armed groups of Black and White men had a standoff over Rowland’s custody — Black residents feared a lynching — and chaos broke out.
A White mob descended on Greenwood and burned homes and other buildings across a 35-block area in the once-thriving business district. Officials estimated that 36 people died, but historians say the toll was closer to 300 people.
Mr. Biden’s guide at the Greenwood Cultural Center, program director Michelle Brown-Burdex, said “the most successful, prosperous Black-owned business district in the country” was decimated within 24 hours.
“You’re right, it was a massacre,” Mr. Biden said.
The survivors who met with Mr. Biden ranged in age from 101 to 107. They were identified by the White House as Viola “Mother” Fletcher, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis and Lessie “Mother Randle” Benningfield Randle.
Mr. Biden said Ms. Randle, then 6 years old, felt lucky to have a home and toys and enjoy the prosperity that Black lawyers, preachers, teachers and others enjoyed in Greenwood.
“One night changed everything,” Mr. Biden said. “Mother Randle said it was like a war.”
The president said there is a through-line from the Tulsa massacre to White extremists who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and served as the stated inspiration for his own campaign.
Mr. Biden issued an executive order on his first day in office designed to root out discriminatory programs, though his broader aims have run into roadblocks.
He has emphasized racial equity in the coronavirus vaccine rollout, with some success, though levels of COVID-19 immunization among Black Americans lag that of Whites as a proportion of the U.S. population, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.
Mr. Biden had pressed Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by the first anniversary of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, but lawmakers haven’t reached a deal.
The president acted on his own Tuesday, directing Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge to use fair housing laws, regulatory action and new guidance alongside the industry and state and local governments to expose discrimination in home appraisals.
The administration cited a Brookings Institution study that found houses in majority-Black communities are often valued at tens of thousands of dollars less than comparable homes in similar, majority-White communities.
“The impact of these disparities in home appraisals can be sweeping, limiting homeowners’ ability to properly benefit from refinancing or reselling their homes at higher valuations and thereby contributing to the already-sprawling racial wealth gap,” a White House fact sheet said.
The White House also said agencies will be charged with using every tool available to them to reduce barriers to minority entrepreneurs and firms, or “small disadvantaged businesses,” who compete for federal contracts.
“The impact could be historic: All told, attainment of the new goal will represent the biggest increase in SDB contracting since data was first collected more than 30 years ago,” the fact sheet said.
Mr. Biden did not announce direct reparations for Tulsa residents and did not outline plans to cancel student debt — a step the NAACP and other groups wanted — though he touted investments in laboratory research at historically Black colleges and universities.