Joe Biden on Tuesday will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the massacre of hundreds of Black Americans by a white mob in Tulsa, Okla., as he marks one of the worst chapters in the country’s history of racial violence.
Biden, a Democrat, will meet with the handful of surviving members of the Greenwood community on the 100th anniversary of the killings, and announce steps to combat inequality, White House officials said.
They will include plans to expand federal contracting with small, disadvantaged businesses, invest tens of billions of dollars in communities like Greenwood that suffer from persistent poverty and pursue new efforts to combat housing discrimination.
“What these survivors have endured is tragic and devastating,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on the flight to Oklahoma on Tuesday. He plans to listen, learn and portray his heartfelt gratitude to them for sharing their stories, she said.
Biden also “will explain that we need to know our history from the original sin of slavery, through the Tulsa race massacre to racial discrimination and housing in order to build common ground, to truly repair and rebuild,” Jean-Pierre said.
The president will address the U.S. legacy of racist violence and the challenges to unity ahead, an administration official said. Biden cannot fulfil his promise to restore the “soul” of the nation without recognizing the complexity of U.S. history, the official said.
In a proclamation on Monday, Biden asked all Americans 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.”
His visit comes during a racial reckoning in the United States as the country’s white majority shrinks, threats increase from white supremacist groups and the country re-examines its treatment of Black Americans after last year’s murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, which sparked nationwide protests.
Biden, who won the presidency on the strength of Black voter support, made fighting racial inequality a key platform of his 2020 campaign and has done the same during his short tenure in the White House. He met last week with members of Floyd’s family on the anniversary of his death and is pushing for passage of a police reform bill that bears Floyd’s name.
Public awareness of massacre has grown
Public awareness about the killings in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921, which were not taught in history classes or reported by local newspapers for decades, has grown in recent years.
White residents shot and killed up to 300 Black people and burned and looted homes and businesses, devastating the prosperous Greenwood district — known at the time as “Black Wall Street” — after a white woman accused a Black man of assault, an allegation that was never proven.
Insurance companies did not cover the damages and no one was charged for the attacks.
Thousands of survivors of the massacre were forced for a time into internment camps overseen by the National Guard. Burned bricks and a fragment of a church basement are about all that survive today of the more than 30-block, historically Black district.
Biden’s visit “encourages unity and gives hope,” said Frances Jordan-Rakestraw, executive director of the Greenwood Cultural Center, a museum about the massacre. “It is necessary that we share with each generation the past and the significant imperfection of inequality.”
William Darity Jr., a professor at Duke University, who co-wrote From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twentieth Century, said the Tulsa visit would be a meaningful time to announce a presidential commission to “explore the history of America’s racial atrocities and bring forth proposals for racial justice.”
Jean-Pierre said Biden “supports a study of reparations, but believes first and foremost the task in front of us is to root out systemic racism.”
The racial justice issue also figures in the growing battle over voting rights. Multiple Republican-led states, claiming 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 and other minority voters to cast ballots.