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100 years after Tulsa race massacre, Black residents await Biden, and reparations

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A man gestures after a soil dedication ceremony for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, on the 100-year anniversary in Tulsa, Oklahoma./AFP
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Jun 01, 2021 - 05:30 AM

TULSA — In Tulsa, the city that still bears the scars of a 1921 racial massacre, African-American residents are eagerly awaiting the arrival of President Joe Biden on Tuesday, hoping he will hear their call for financial reparations.

“I just want him to feel our pain,” said local activist Kristi Williams.

The Democratic leader, who has benefited from a strong support base among Black voters, will attend Tuesday’s commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in US history.

Williams, who is descended from some of the massacre victims, wants Biden to “do us right.”

“It’s been 100 years, and we have been impacted negatively, from housing, economic development, our land has been taken,” she told AFP.

“This country, right now has an opportunity to right this wrong.”

On May 31, 1921, a group of Black men had gone to the Tulsa courthouse to defend a young African-American man accused of assaulting a white woman. They found themselves facing a mob of hundreds of furious white people.

Tensions spiked and shots were fired, and the African Americans retreated to their neighborhood, Greenwood.

The next day, at dawn, white men looted and burned the neighborhood, at the time so prosperous it was called Black Wall Street.

As with the economic losses, the human toll is difficult to estimate, but historians say that as many as 300 African-American residents lost their lives, and nearly 10,000 people were left homeless.

In 2001, a commission created to study the tragedy concluded that Tulsa authorities themselves had armed some of the white rioters.

Biden said Monday that “the federal government must reckon with and acknowledge the role that it has played in stripping wealth and opportunity from Black communities” such as Greenwood.

In Tulsa, this is just the beginning: residents expect further action from a president who has cautiously declared support for looking into financial reparations for Blacks.

‘It hasn’t changed’ 

The mayor of Tulsa formally apologized Monday for “the city government’s failure to protect our community in 1921.”

“The victims — men, women, young children — deserved better from their city, and I am so sorry they didn’t receive it,” G.T. Bynum said in a statement.

In this city in Oklahoma, part of the previously slave-owning US south and a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, the effects of the massacre are still felt.

There are marked inequalities between the northern part of Tulsa, which is predominantly Black, and the south, which has mostly white residents.

“When tourists visit Tulsa, one of the things that they say is that they can’t believe how segregated it still is, or how racism is so evident,” said Michelle Brown, who runs educational programs at a cultural center.

Billie Parker, a 50-year-old African-American woman, said Tulsa is the same as when she was growing up there. “It hasn’t changed. We’re still separated.”

She said Black residents are still disadvantaged compared to the city’s white residents. Reparations could, she believes, help Greenwood improve its schools.

Many in Greenwood say it’s time for the state to help the neighborhood regain its prosperity, which burned to ashes in the fires of 1921.

“There’s nothing here but grass, but there was investment, there was wealth, there was life,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat. She is the chief sponsor of a bill on federal slavery reparation payments to African Americans.

In mid-April, a US congressional committee voted to advance the bill to the House of Representatives.

On April 19, some of the last 100-year-old survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre came to Washington to testify before Congress and ask that the country recognize their suffering.

The 2001 commission had recommended that Greenwood residents receive compensation. But so far, reparations have not been paid.

Beyond financial compensation, city residents are counting on Biden’s visit and the ceremony for the massacre’s 100th anniversary to bring more attention to the tragedy, which has long remained taboo.

Tulsa has also begun to excavate mass graves, where many Black victims of the massacre are buried, in an effort to shed more light on the city’s dark past.

For LaShaundra Haughton, 51, the great-granddaughter of some of the massacre survivors, “it is time to heal, it is time to tell the truth, it is time to bring everything to light.”

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