Memorial for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (305211)
Credit: Cyril Josh Barker photo

A century after Tulsa, Oklahoma witnessed a massacre that left an estimated 300 deaths in its wake, most of them African Americans, a president has brought attention to it. President Joe Biden is the first president to acknowledge the devastation promulgated by white mob violence, and the centennial of the event may have helped in this regard.

Whatever the motivation, at last a nation is now aware of a horrific incident long buried in the annals of American history, though hardly forgotten by those victimized by the attack and given fresh currency by a trio of living witnesses.

“I come here to help fill the silence,” President Biden said. “Because in silence, wounds deepen.”

Biden’s attention follows a number of documentaries now being shown on television or streamed on various media platforms, as well as a sundry of articles of books now gaining popularity. But before this notice, the Tulsa race massacre was something that rarely surfaced and even traces of it were torn from the papers that chronicled the horror.

Now people are learning about what happened in those dozen or more hours beginning on May 31 to June 1 in 1921. Getting some idea of the extent of the massacre’s destruction, victims, and property loss, and how a bountiful, flourishing Black community—so vital and prosperous that it was called “Black Wall Street”—was incinerated by national guard planes that dropped turpentine and gasoline bombs on the Greenwood District.

Biden toured the revived neighborhood and visited the Greenwood Cultural Center where photos and artifacts are available for researchers. He also met with Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, three of the survivors of the massacre, all of them more than 100 years old.

“You are the three known remaining survivors seen in the mirror dimly, but no longer,” Biden told them. “Now your story will be known in full view. The events we speak of today took place 100 years ago, and yet I’m the first president in 100 years to come to Tulsa.”

The visit from a president is clearly a remarkable step in the right direction, and perhaps it will further the mission to set aside reparations for the victims, investigate the tragedy, and seek other forms of justice. No one has been charged or punished for the massacre; in fact, it remains a mystery the circumstances that started it.

Generally, it’s believed that the incident began in the department store where Sarah Page, a white woman, was working as an elevator operator when she was bumped into by Dick Rowland, a Black man. That accidental encounter quickly mushroomed into rumors of rape and Rowland was jailed. The Black community was alarmed and incensed, especially after a white mob descended on the jail to apprehend Rowland and lynch him. This confrontation intensified into a full-fledged shootout between Black and white residents.

With each telling of the event, either in the press or by eyewitnesses, it grew in complexity and inaccuracies. Even today, despite a number of notable historical accounts, there is no consensus.

Biden also announced that Vice President Kamala Harris would be leading an initiative to protect endangered voting rights. Across the country various state legislatures are actively determined to nullify the voting rights gained during the Civil Rights movement.