TULSA, Okla. — President Joe Biden unveiled a series of policies aimed at narrowing the wealth gap between Blacks and whites on the 100th anniversary of one of the nation’s worst race massacres, but stopped short of issuing an apology or addressing the controversial topic of reparations for survivors and descendants.
The question of reparations has dominated the 100th anniversary of the razing of North Tulsa’s Greenwood District, when a white mob fueled by envy and hate burned and looted nearly 35 square blocks on May 31 and June 1, 1921. As many as 300 Blacks may have been killed, according to historians, and thousands were left homeless.
Hours before he arrived, dozens of people held a rally nearby, chanting “no reparations, no peace.”
Biden did address the fact that details of the Tulsa Race Massacre were for decades suppressed and ignored.
"We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or it doesn't impact us today because it still does impact us today. We can't just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That's what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark side."
Biden pledged his administration would launch a first-of-its-kind effort to tackle inequity in home appraisals nationwide. The White House said homes in majority-Black neighborhoods are often valued tens of thousands less than comparable homes in predominantly-white neighborhoods. Biden also said his administration will fight housing discrimination and increase federal contracting with minority-owned businesses.
He said the community could have thrived, but that redlining and "chronic underinvestment" continued to affect Greenwood. He noted that the level of Black home ownership nationwide today is lower than it was when the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968.
"We must find the courage to change the things we know we can change," Biden said.
Greenwood resident Tim Newton, 40, said Biden’s words were “a step in the right direction.”
“But I think there’s a greater conversation to be had concerning reparations, and now we’re looking forward to having this conversation in the future,” he said.
Ebony Easiley, 28, of Tulsa, said while Biden’s visit represents a historic moment, the conversation must remain focused on reparations.
“We have to stay focused on what it means to properly commemorate the history that we’ve seen happen here in the Greenwood District,” she said.
Just before addressing a crowd of mainly Tulsa residents, Biden toured a room at the Greenwood Cultural Center as program coordinator Michelle Brown-Burdex told him some of the history of Greenwood and the massacre. Biden also questioned her about what led to the second decline of the Greenwood District years after survivors’ grit and determination restored it into a thriving community.
Brown-Burdex said the community’s second downfall was caused in part by the end of segregation. She said survivors recalled that when they had the right to spend in white-owned businesses, they did, not thinking about the impact that would have on small Black-owned businesses in the Greenwood District. She also said the federal highway project, which divided the community, also contributed to its ultimate decline.
Biden then met privately with the three known living survivors of the massacre, who range in age from 100 to 107. The three are also pressing for reparations and justice, and are listed as plaintiffs in a lawsuit suing the city and state of Oklahoma for damages.
Charles Harper, 48, of Tulsa, said he was excited as he waited in line for admission to the Cultural Center ahead of Biden’s speech. He said Biden is the first president who has visited Greenwood, which was known as Black Wall Street before the 1921 race massacre because of its affluence.
“We really want to know what he has to say, what he thinks about it, and what can he do to hopefully bring some light and support to the survivors, to the descendants and to the people in this community because it’s just way overdue,” Harper said.
In recent decades, economic difficulties have continued to be a trend in much of north Tulsa, Chad Wilkerson, vice president and economist at the Oklahoma City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said in a statement. He noted that unemployment is much higher than the rest of the city and state, and that real per capita personal income in north Tulsa was about $17,500 from 2015 to 2019 — about half of the national average.
Some attendees, meanwhile, said they wanted more than just words from Biden.
“What Justice for Greenwood — the coalition of partners — has been pushing for this entire time is that there needs to be restitution, respect and reparations for what happened 100 years ago,” said Aurelius Francisco, a resident of Greenwood. “We need them to understand that what happened in 1921 is still happening today in North Tulsa.”
Francisco said that he is impressed with the resilience of the Greenwood community. They’ve gotten where they are today without reparations or justice for 100 years. No one was ever prosecuted, and millions in insurance claims were denied.
“It just shows the sort of superhuman-like strength of Black people in this country that we continue to persevere, continue to push forward against all the odds,” he said.