Joe Biden Is First President to Visit Tulsa and Mark 1921 Race Massacre: 'We Have to Choose to Remember'

"Only in remembrance do wounds heal," the president told the crowd in Oklahoma on Tuesday

Joe Biden in Tulsa
President Joe Biden. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty

It took a century, but Joe Biden this week became the first president to visit Oklahoma and mark the anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Biden's trip Tuesday afternoon came on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, when a violent white mob killed as many as 300 Black residents and decimated the city's 35-block Greenwood neighborhood — a booming business district known at the time as "Black Wall Street."

It was one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, though it was minimized for decades.

"For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness," the president, 78, said Tuesday. "But just because history is silent, it does not mean it did not take place. While darkness can hide much, it erases nothing."

A day earlier, Biden issued a proclamation calling for a "Day of Remembrance" in honor of the 1921 massacre.

"The Federal Government must reckon with and acknowledge the role that it has played in stripping wealth and opportunity from Black communities," he wrote in his proclamation.

Speaking in Tulsa on Tuesday, Biden received lengthy applause when he declared: "My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre."

"We can't just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know," Biden said. "We should know the good, the bad, everything. That's what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides. And we're a great nation."

Before delivering his remarks, Biden met privately with three living survivors of the violence: Viola Fletcher, 107, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 105, and 10-year-old Hughes Van Ellis.

"Thank you for spending so much time with me, I really mean it," he told them, delivering his remarks after their meeting. "It was an honor — a genuine honor."

The president also toured the Greenwood Cultural Center alongside advisers Susan Rice and Cedric Richmond and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge.

Joe Biden in Tulsa
President Joe Biden. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty
Biden in Tulsa
Survivors listen to President Joe Biden as he speaks on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty

With his speech, Biden laid out plans for the federal government to increase funding for small businesses in disadvantaged communities, many that are minority-owned. He said his administration will also include fair housing rules, which aim to thwart racial discrimination.

"We must find the courage to change the things we know we can change," he said.

His visit — and the newly widespread discussion of the Tulsa massacre's dark place in American history — comes at a time of social awakening surrounding issues of racial injustice, spurred on by the murder of George Floyd last May.

Joe Biden in Tulsa
President Joe Biden. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty

Shortly after taking office in January, Biden signed several executive orders that he said were aimed at improving equality — including calling on the government to allocate more funding to "underserved communities," another order condemning racist violence, one banning workplace gender discrimination and one promoting equal voting access.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris — the first Black and Asian person and first woman to hold the office — met with members of Floyd's family last week, on the one-year anniversary of his killing.

The family told reporters then that Biden and Harris spoke with them about efforts to encourage Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

"I think genuinely he wanted to know exactly how we were doing and what he could do to support us," Floyd's nephew, Brandon Williams, said.

Biden has already marked several tragedies since taking office — including the nearly 600,000 lives lost to COVID-19 — and often touches on his experience with grief following the deaths of his first wife, Neilia; their baby daughter, Naomi; and later his son Beau.

Tuesday was no different.

"We simply can't bury the pain and trauma forever," he said after telling the crowd that "only in remembrance do wounds heal."

"We just have to choose to remember," he said.

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