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President Biden marks 101st anniversary of ‘Black Wall Street’ racial violence in Oklahoma. ‘This was not a riot, it was a massacre’

June 1, 2022, 8:36 PM UTC

President Joe Biden on Wednesday marked the 101st anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre by commemorating the hundreds of Black residents killed in what was among the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. 

In 1921, a white mob descended on the neighborhood of Greenwood—dubbed “Black Wall Street”—and destroyed 35 city blocks. The district was home to 10,000 residents at the time and thrived as a self-contained hub of Black prosperity

“This was not a riot, it was a massacre,” Biden declared in a statement Wednesday. “As many as 300 Black Americans were killed, and nearly 10,000 were left destitute. Homes, businesses, and churches were burned. A generation of Black wealth was extinguished.”

Greenwood residents went on to file over $1.8 million in loss claims, valued at over $29 million in today’s currency, according to a 2001 report from an Oklahoma commission to study the riot. The city rejected all but one of them. A white shop owner received compensation for guns taken out of his shop. 

One of the wealthiest Black men in Tulsa, O.W. Gurley, lost $157,783 in the riot, according to city commission reports. The real estate developer would be worth more than $2.5 million today. Another Black businessman, J.B. Stradford, had a fortune twice as large, per the report. 

However, not all residents filed insurance claims or took the city to court. Experts estimate the financial toll to be much greater, upwards of $200 million worth of Black property in today’s dollars. 

After the massacre, Greenwood pushed forward to rebuild, though its efforts received significant pushback from the city and white banks. 

“In the years that followed, even as Greenwood worked to rebuild, discrimination was systematically embedded in our laws and policies, locking Black residents out of opportunity and ensuring that the attack on Black families and Black wealth persisted across generations,” Biden said in his remarks. 

Despite the scale of its bloodshed and destruction, the Tulsa massacre went largely ignored for decades. 

“Within a decade after it had happened, the Tulsa race riot went from being a front-page national calamity, to being an incident portrayed as an unfortunate, but not really very significant, event in the state’s past,” the commission wrote in its report. 

The report added that state textbooks published in the 1920s and 1930s made no mention of it. Oklahoma students were not required to be taught about the massacre until the 2000s due to what Tulsa’s school superintendent called a “conspiracy of silence.”

In his statement on Wednesday, the president alluded to his visit to Tulsa one year earlier for the 100th anniversary of the massacre. It was the first time a sitting U.S. president had visited the site.

“As I said in Tulsa, great nations do not hide from their histories,” he said. “We are a great nation, and by reckoning with and remedying the injustices of the past, America will become greater still.”

Update, June 1, 2022: This article was updated with more recent values for financial losses suffered by victims of the Tulsa violence.

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