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President Biden vows to repair Greenwood in Tulsa but stops short of saying reparations

President Joe Biden speaks as he commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, at the Greenwood Cultural Center, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre filled the seats behind a podium prepared for President Biden inside Tulsa’s Greenwood Cultural Center on Tuesday, the air was filled with excitement, but most of all, hope that a U.S. president would for the first time recognize the brilliance of Black Wall Street, the racist destruction of Greenwood in 1921 and a need for systemic repair.

Shortly before addressing the crowd, President Biden took a brief tour of the main gallery room of the Greenwood Cultural Center. With a solemn tone, he listened as GCC program coordinator Mechelle Brown gave him a history of Greenwood, from triumph to tragedy. 

After Brown explained how hundreds of insurance claims in the ‘20s were denied due to a racist interpretation of a riot clause, Biden set the record straight, saying “It wasn’t a riot. It was a massacre.”

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biden reparations tulsa

President Biden tours the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa with program coordinator Mechelle Brown. (Christopher Creese / The Black Wall Street Times)

President speaks in Greenwood

Moments later, Biden took the stage in the Greenwood Cultural Center’s auditorium, surrounded by the Congressional Black Caucus, civil rights leaders, massacre survivors and descendants and community members of Greenwood. With his historic visit and speech, he did something White politicians have rarely done for Greenwood; he showed empathy and understanding. 

While twice-impeached former president Donald Trump came to Tulsa for a rally in 2020, Biden’s visit marks the first time any president has ever visited the Black community of Greenwood.

“Only with truth can come healing and justice and repair…but that isn’t enough,” Biden told the crowd.

J.B. Stradford descendant

Before giving his address, a descendant of famous Greenwood hotel owner J.B. Stradford testified to the resilience of Greenwood and the anguish her family has experienced due to never inheriting the generational wealth that was stolen from her self-starting ancestor.

“He was falsely indicted for inciting a riot by an inflamed White grand jury for daring to stand up with his community to stop a mob from breaking into the jail and lynching a Black teenager named Dick Rowland…my family worked to get these charges against J.B. dropped posthumously,” descendant Lauren Usher said. 

“He [Biden] understands that as a nation we are and we must be strong enough to confront the dark periods of our history with a bold agenda of equity, repair and healing,” Usher added.

Oklahoma Democratic Party leader

With a 180-degree shift from a year ago, when Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum allowed Trump to hold his divisive rally in the city, the room was full of powerful Black and brown change-makers.

The Black Wall Street Times was able to speak directly with several members of Oklahoma’s Black Caucus, members of United States Congress, a Hollywood actor-turned activist, and modern civil rights leader Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign.

“We have a president who is coming, not only aware of what’s going on, but because of what’s going on,” Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Alicia Andrews said moments before the president gave his address.

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Oklahoma state Rep. Monroe Nichols

“Tulsa needs healing but the nation needs healing. And on top of that, his American Jobs Plan actually addresses the needs of Tulsa specifically. So, you ask me how I feel about that? I am thrilled,” Andrews added. “I think it’s more than just a photo op with the president, that we remember why he’s coming here. And we need to make sure that he remembers why he’s coming here.

Oklahoma state Rep. Monroe Nichols is the minority caucus vice chair and a member of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus who resigned from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission after it became apparent that the commission wasn’t in line with the needs or demands of the Greenwood community.

“I hope our state legislature, which was successful in passing legislation that would really restrict us from exploring the history and the foundations of racism, I hope they understand why it’s important for us to fully understand those things and the difference that they make in who we are today, and, more importantly, who we could be if we can move past it,” Nichols told The Black Wall Street Times.

Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin

Noting the historic occasion when the nation finally recognizes the loss of life, livelihood and the need for repair, Oklahoma Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd added, “There’s no going back, and it’s about time.”

Illustrating the significance of Biden’s recognition that the Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history, Oklahoma state Rep. and descendant of massacre survivors Regina Goodwin, said it shows that he’s human.

“We appreciate where we are but we have to get to reparation, we have to get to restitution. Beyond the commemoration, we need some commemor-action,” Goodwin said.

biden reparations tulsa

Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-73). (Christopher Creese / The Black Wall Street Times)

Biden touts American Jobs Plan

When asked whether she thinks Biden’s visit will spark a change in conservatives and out-right racists in the Oklahoma Legislature, she said that’s between them and God.

“We cannot legislate emotions. We cannot legislate morals. So, we’ll just have to see. But we’ve gotta do what we gotta do. We can not give up. We have not given up in 100 years, and today is not the time where we would think differently,” she added.

During his address, President Biden spoke about policy efforts within his American Jobs Plan that will directly boost opportunity for prosperity in Greenwood, such as expanding efforts to combat racist housing practices, setting aside more federal contract opportunies for minority-owned businesses, strengthening voting rights and investing substantially in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Congresswoman Cori Bush

He verbally envisioned a day when Greenwood will have better infrastructure, access to health care, clean water, clean air, and nearby grocery stores. “Does anyone doubt the nation will be better off with these investments?,” President Biden asked.

Congresswomen Cori Bush (MO-1) and Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) were also in attendance and were adamant about the need to move past commemoration toward reparation and repair.

“He knows what’s happening, which means there has to be action,” Rep. Cori Bush told The Black Wall Street Times. “So, it’s one thing that the information has gotten to our president. It’s another thing when you know it’s there, and he’s speaking on it, which means he’s more accountable.”

biden reparations tulsa

Congresswoman Cori Bush (MO-1) (Christopher Creese / The Black Wall Street Times)

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and federal reparations

Rep Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) compared the fight against Nazi Germany to the fight against white supremacy in the U.S.

“We’re hoping that this will be the month that we pass H.R. 40, the commission to study and develop reparations proposals, and we hope we do it with the support of most of America, who understands that when you do damage to a race or a community of people, then you must repair it. And when you repair it, it helps all people,” Rep. Jackson Lee said, highlighting the fact that Black people have always stood with marginalized communities from diverse backgrounds.

biden reparations tulsa

Rep Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), talks with journalist Deon Osborne about her desire to pass reparations this month with H.R. 40 (Christopher Creese / The Black Wall Street Times.)

H.R. 40 has passed the House and awaits a vote in the Senate, where Democrats hold the slimmest of majorities. While President Biden spoke at length about using policy to create racial equity, he refused to utter the words reparations, despite the fact that he wouldn’t have become president without the support of Black Americans.

Actor Sophia Bush

Meanwhile, even actors-turned activists voiced support for systemic repair. Sophia Bush, an actor who rose to fame for her role as Brooke Davis in high school drama “One Tree Hill”, attended the event and spoke to The Black Wall Street Times about the need for reparations. She partnered with Dr. Tiffany Crutcher last year and has been an avid supporter ever since.

“My first meetings in the community really made me want to double down nearly a year ago. And I think Tulsa is making an incredible case for reparations not only here but nationwide. And when we talk about advocacy I think about all of us being national neighbors really. We’re meant to advocate for each other. We’re meant to understand that we’re a national community,” Bush told The Black Wall Street Times.  “I just am really inspired because people know that this is a community that deserves support.”

biden reparations tulsa

Actor Sophia Bush (Christopher Creese / The Black Wall Street Times)

For his part, Biden, for the first time, gave the nation a rundown of how White mobs burned, bombed and looted more than 35 square blocks of prosperous, self-sufficient Greenwood and the decades-long efforts to thwart the rebuilding of Black Wall Street. He ended a weekend of commemoration with one of his own.

Rev. Jesse Jackson’s grandson

“Millions of White Americans belonged to the Klan,” President Biden told the audience and the nation. “That hate became embedded systemically in our laws and our culture…we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know,” he said, most likely speaking about efforts like Oklahoma’s law HB 1775, which restrict teachers from educating students about white privilege, implicit bias, and how the country was founded on white supremacy.

For audience members like the grandson of Rev. Jesse Jackson, the history of Black Wall Street, the massacre, and efforts to rebuild should be taught in classrooms across the nation.

“For obvious reasons, it’s always been suppressed, and so I feel like it’s really important to commemorate and popularize these events so it becomes more common knowledge,” Noah Jackson told The Black Wall Street Times.

Civil rights leader Rev. William Barber

“I mean, you would not find a massacre like this to another group of people and not have the president come to the nation,” Jackson added.

While Biden uplifted the stories and the resiliency of the three last known living survivors and descendants of survivors, and those who perished at the hands of a “fuse of fury,” the nation watched as he then led them in a moment of silence for the souls of the bodies being exhumed by Tulsa in its efforts to uncover mass graves from the massacre.

Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign said it was an important step that President Biden and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge were in attendance, but he stressed the need for a more realistic picture of what was lost. 

biden reparations tulsa

Rev. William Barber greets the three last known living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre (Christopher Creese / The Black Wall Street Times)

What atonement looks like

“What would Black Wall Street look like today? Would it look like tech and biotech? Don’t tell us it can’t come back. There’s land here. There’s possibility here, you know? Maybe it shouldn’t be limited to just this side of town. Maybe, since you took a part of town, you got to give a part of town. But those are the serious questions. So, this is an important step to put a light on it,” Barber told The Black Wall Street Times.

But for Rev. Barber and many in attendance at Biden’s historic address in Greenwood, atonement must come with a full accounting of what was lost, not the numbers that White historians and politicians have listed.

“We need an independent study commissioned by the leaders of Greenwood, the best economists, public health officials, and actually look at what was the true loss and what was the potential loss,” Rev. Barber said. “There is no way to fix this without reparation and restitution. I think that there were some pieces mentioned, some pieces of public policy, but this is not a one-piece public policy.”

5 comments

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[…] marked the Centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which over 35 square blocks of businesses and homes were burned to the ground and hundreds of […]

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