As they gathered to witness US President Joe Biden’s historic visit to the site of a racist massacre that devastated a thriving community, Black Tulsans said they hoped his presence means the long-ignored injustice will finally receive recognition.
The Tulsa district of Greenwood — nicknamed “Black Wall Street” — was devastated in 1921 by a mob of armed white people. Hundreds are thought to have died in the violence sparked by a false accusation against a young Black man.
Biden is the first sitting president to attend the annual commemorations. Now, locals say, he needs to give economic help to a community that 100 years later has still not recovered its prosperity.
“It’s a wound,” said Betty Anderson. “It still hurts.”
But the 70-year-old welcomed Biden, calling his visit “phenomenal” and expressing hope that his presence would help educate white Americans about events in Oklahoma state that have lain hidden for too long.
– So-called ‘riots’ –
Up to 300 people were killed in the attack, and some 10,000 were left homeless when the district was set ablaze, leaving a vibrant economy in ruins.
No one was ever convicted for the destruction, and insurance companies, claiming that the unrest was the result of riots, refused to reimburse Black victims.
“Twenty years ago, nobody said it was a massacre, people said it was a riot,” a woman in the crowd cried out, as people clapped in support.
Never discussed even in parts of Tulsa’s Black community, for years the brutal acts of violence were not taught in schools.
But on Tuesday Biden said he wanted to “fill the silence,” and went on to recognize that “there was a clear effort to erase” the event from the nation’s memory.
The president told the audience, among them three survivors of the massacre, “we will shine a light on your history.”
The Greenwood district never managed to recover.
“It even affected the way us Black people look at white people,” said 13-year-old Colece, who was born in Tulsa.
– ‘He knew how things had been’ –
Her 63-year-old grandmother Celestine Polk nods, and described how her family struggled in the aftermath.
“My father especially,” she said, “because he knew how things have been.”
“But it’s not as if we could go back and change what happened, we have to live with it,” the teenager said, adding that “maybe people will feel better if they feel the government cares about what happened.”
A bit further away, near a booth offering t-shirts to commemorate the massacre and under a “Black Lives Matter flag,” Anthony Hutton thinks it will take a lot to heal the pain.
Biden’s visit is “a kind gesture,” said the 46-year-old, but it wasn’t enough.
As an engineer Hutton said he can not find work in the area, and said that Black Tulsans still face racial discrimination.
“We’re looking for economic opportunities, the same opportunities they have elsewhere, all around town,” he said.
“We’re tired of talking, marching, we want results.”