WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden on Monday issued a proclamation declaring May 31 a day of remembrance 100 years after the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
Biden called for unity among Americans urging people to "reflect on the deep roots of racial terror in our Nation and recommit to the work of rooting out systemic racism across our country."
On Monday, hundreds gathered for an interfaith service dedicating a prayer wall outside the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood on the centennial of the first day of one of the deadliest racist massacres in the nation.
National civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and William Barber, joined multiple local faith leaders to offer prayers and remarks outside the church that was largely destroyed when a White mob descended on the prosperous Black neighborhood in 1921, burning, killing, looting and leveling a 35-square-block area. Estimates of the death toll range from dozens to 300.
Although the church was nearly destroyed in the massacre, parishioners continued to meet in the basement, and it was rebuilt several years later, becoming a symbol of the resilience of Tulsa's Black community. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.
Biden’s proclamation comes as the horrors of such a violent day had only recently garnered national attention in the last few years.
The horror and violence visited upon Tulsa’s Black community didn’t become part of the American story. Instead, it was pushed down, unremembered and untaught until efforts decades later started bringing it into the light. And even this year, with the 100th anniversary of the massacre being recognized, it’s still an unfamiliar history to many — something historians say has broader repercussions.
Former President Barack Obama called on Americans Monday to learn more about the tragic killings so as not to forget "this painful part of our history."
"On the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, we remember all those who were killed and the survivors who bravely continue to share their stories so that we never forget this painful part of our history," he said.
In Oklahoma, the massacre largely wasn’t discussed until a commission was formed in 1997 to investigate the violence. For decades, the state’s public schools called it the Tulsa race riot, when it was discussed at all. Students now are urged to consider the differences between calling it a "massacre" or a "riot."
In Tulsa, word of unrest that started on May 31, 1921, and ran through the night and the next day made it to news outlets. Front-page stories and accounts from The Associated Press spoke of a "race clash" and "armed conflict." But the aftermath — of a community shattered —- was relegated to inside pages at best before being swept under the rug.
In one example, a story weeks later well inside the pages of The New York Times reported in passing that a grand jury in Oklahoma had determined the catastrophe was due to the actions of armed Black people and the White people who got involved were not at fault.
As odd as it may sound, the mere fact that something happened isn’t enough for it to be remembered, said Robin Wagner-Pacifici, a professor teaching sociology at the New School for Social Research, who has written about the MOVE bombing.
It just shows that remembering is never just actually about remembering, Wagner-Pacifici said.
"It’s always motivated," she said. "Who remembers what about the past, who allows a past to be remembered, to be brought back to life and in what ways ... it’s absolutely fundamental to who you decide you want to be in the present."
Biden explained that his proclamation serves to help Americans never forget such a horrific tragedy in U.S. history.
"With this proclamation, I commit to the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, including Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, the descendants of victims, and to this Nation that we will never forget," Biden wrote.
"NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 31, 2021, a Day of Remembrance: 100 Years After The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre," Biden’s proclamation continued. "I call upon the people of the United States to commemorate the tremendous loss of life and security that occurred over those 2 days in 1921, to celebrate the bravery and resilience of those who survived and sought to rebuild their lives again, and commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it."
You can read the proclamation in full here.
This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.