Joe Biden has become the first sitting US president to visit the Tulsa, Oklahoma site where hundreds of black Americans were massacred by a white mob in 1921, as he marked the country’s legacy of racial violence.
Mr Biden oversaw a moment of silence for the victims after meeting with three people who lived in the district during the massacre – Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle – and toured a museum dedicated to the incident.
“For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence,” Mr Biden said on Tuesday (local time).
“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre, and among the worst in our history. But not the only one.”
His administration also planned steps to combat inequality. They include efforts to expand federal contracting with small, disadvantaged businesses, invest tens of billions of dollars in communities that suffer from persistent poverty and pursue new efforts to combat housing discrimination.
Now between the ages of 101 and 107, the survivors who met Biden asked Congress for “justice” this year and are parties to a lawsuit against state and local officials seeking several remedies for the massacre, including a victim compensation fund.
His visit comes during a racial reckoning in the United States as the country’s white majority shrinks, threats increase from white supremacist groups and the country re-examines its treatment of African Americans after last year’s murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, sparked nationwide protests.
Mr Biden, a Democrat who earned goodwill from black voters as vice-president under Barack Obama, made fighting racial inequality a key platform of his 2020 campaign. He met members of Mr Floyd’s family on the anniversary of his death last week and is pushing for passage of a police reform bill that bears Mr Floyd’s name.
Mr Biden’s Tulsa trip offered a sharp contrast with a year ago, when then-president Donald Trump, a Republican who criticised Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements, planned a political rally in Tulsa on June 19, the “Juneteenth” anniversary that celebrates the end of US slavery in 1865. The rally was postponed after criticism.
Public awareness about the killings in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921, has grown in recent years.
White residents shot and killed up to 300 black people and burned and looted homes and businesses, devastating a prosperous African-American community known at “Black Wall Street” after a white woman accused a black man of assault, an allegation that was never proven.
Insurance companies did not cover the damages and no one was charged for the violence.