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100 Years After Massacre in Tulsa, Biden Vows Aid for Black Americans

The United States will offer new fair-housing and grant programs to begin rectifying inequities still felt one century after a racist uprising in Oklahoma that ended hundreds of Black lives.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Tying discriminatory law and policy endured by generations of Black Americans to a 100-year-old explosion of white mob violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma, President Joe Biden spoke Tuesday about his administration's commitment to closing the country's racial wealth gap.

Biden unveiled his plans at an event in Tulsa this afternoon marking not only 100 years since angry whites pillaged the city but the first time a U.S. president has visited Tulsa on the anniversary. One hundred years gone, Biden called it time to “acknowledge the truth and history” of what happened.

“Just because history is silent doesn’t mean that it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing. Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they can’t be buried no matter how hard people try,” the president said. “So it is here, only with truth can come healing, justice and repair — only with truth — facing it.”

The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred in 1921 across 35 square blocks of a predominantly Black section of the city called Greenwood. Surrounded by mostly white communities with a fierce appetite for segregation, a Jim Crow approach to all matters of law and order, and a lust for land, Greenwood was the peaceful and prosperous home to some 10,000 people. The districted earned its nickname as Black Wall Street for giving a people already segregated and shunned by white society not only safe haven but a place to thrive, with schools, churches, medical facilities, banks, theaters, newspapers and more.

Though its origins are murky, some historians say the massacre erupted with the scream of a young white woman who had been riding in an elevator alone with a black man. Sarah Page would later admit that Dick Rowland had merely stepped on her toe, but her shriek brought charges of sexual assault against Rowland, who had fled the scene as soon as the elevator doors opened.

After Rowland's arrest, an armed group of Black military veterans staked out the courthouse where he was being held, vowing to prevent a possible lynching.

When a white mob descended on the building, a single shot, unclear from which side, brought eight days of violence, ending with the mass imprisonment and internment of all Black Tulsans by the National Guard. Historians suggest that Oklahoma law enforcement chartered planes to “quell the Negro uprising” by dropping flaming jars of turpentine. The Tulsa Historical Society and Museum also notes that, after the melee, more than 6,000 people were detained for up to eight days at the local convention hall and fairgrounds.

Viola Ford Fletcher is 107 today but just a girl during the attack that killed about 300 fellow Black residents of Greenwood.

The oldest living survivor of the Tulsa race massacre Viola Fletcher listens as President Joe Biden delivers remarks to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, at the Greenwood Cultural Center, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Tulsa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

During a recent appearance before Congress, Fletcher put a finer point on the razing of her community left more than buildings in ashes. When the white mob destroyed Fletcher's home, her family’s wealth was destroyed along with it. Like so many others, Fletcher's family had to flee. And though Fletcher did survive, she also had to forsake an education to make ends meet, ultimately spending most of her life employed as a domestic worker for white people.

The burning, looting, rioting and killing in Tulsa spurred economic consequences for Black Americans not just limited to Oklahoma’s borders or even a single generation. Though not the first time racial violence disrupted Black lives, the massacre is considered one of the worst and most violent episodes of racial violence to occur on U.S. soil.

President Biden minced few words Tuesday about the threat that white supremacy still poses to the United States.

“Terrorism from white supremacy is the most lethal threat to the homeland today, not al-Qaida, not ISIS,” he said, using a name for the Islamic State group.

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In the early days after the massacre, Greenwood was the picture of a new order for its Black residents: Local ordinances with revised construction standards were abruptly put into effect to make rebuilding prohibitively expensive for most survivors.

“Later, Greenwood was redlined by mortgage companies and deemed hazardous by the federal government so that Black homeowners could not access home loans or credit on equal terms,” the White House said in proclamation this weekend recognizing the massacre.

Exacerbating this inequity was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which purposefully routed highways through non-white communities. Over the next decade, a time when segregation laws were being struck down at a faster clip in the courts, highways constructed under the banner of federal development were often used to surreptitiously keep Black and white neighborhoods segregated. The U.S. government freely wielded eminent domain to move homes in its way.

In terming what happened in Tulsa a century ago a riot, Biden argued Tuesday, the arbiters of history “erased much of the truth of what happened that day.

“This was not a riot," the president continued in his address from the Greenwood Cultural Center. "This was a massacre.”

To root out systemic racism still underpinning the U.S economy, Biden vowed on Tuesday to boost federal purchasing power and increase the number of federal contracts for small, disadvantaged businesses, most of which are minority owned, by about 50%. That increase equates to roughly $100 billion over five years, the White House said, and is up from the typical 10% on average going to these businesses.

Looking to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Biden is directing the agency to reinstate fair housing rules and restore the department’s standards for identifying racial discrimination. Amping up fair-housing rules that former President Donald Trump had relaxed, the Biden White House is now directing HUD to trigger liability under the Fair Housing Act regardless of intent.

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