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President Biden marks Tulsa race massacre in emotional speech

US president Joe Biden
Jonathan Lemire, Associated Press

An emotional President Joe Biden marked the 100th anniversary of the massacre that destroyed a thriving black community in Tulsa, declaring he had “come to fill the silence” about one of the nation’s darkest moments of racial violence.

“Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try,” Mr Biden said. “Only with truth can come healing.”

Mr Biden’s commemoration of the deaths of hundreds of black people killed by a white mob a century ago came amid the current national reckoning on racial justice.

“Just because history is silent, it does not mean that it did not take place,” Mr Biden said. He said that “hell was unleashed. literal hell was unleashed.” And now, he said, the nation must come to grips with the following sin of denial.

“We can’t just choose what we want to know, and not what we should know,” said Mr Biden. “I come here to help fill the silence, because in silence wounds deepen.”

In 1921 — on May 31 and June 1 — a white mob, including some people hastily deputized by authorities, looted and burned Tulsa’s Greenwood district, which was known as “Black Wall Street”.

On Tuesday, the president, joined by top black advisers, met privately with three surviving members of the Greenwood community who lived through the violence, the White House said.

Viola “Mother” Fletcher, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis and Lessie “Mother Randle” Benningfield Randle are all between the ages of 101 and 107.

Mr Biden said their experience had been “a story seen in the mirror dimly”.

“But no longer,” the president told the survivors. “Now your story will be known in full view.”

Outside, Latasha Sanders, 33, of Tulsa, brought her five children and a nephew in hopes of spotting Biden.

“It’s been 100 years, and this is the first we’ve heard from any US president,” she said. “I brought my kids here today just so they could be a part of history and not just hear about it, and so they can teach generations to come.”

As many as 300 black Tulsans were killed, and thousands of survivors were forced for a time into internment camps overseen by the National Guard.

Burned bricks and a fragment of a church basement are about all that survive today of the more than 30-block historically black district.

Several hundred people milled around Greenwood Avenue in front of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church awaiting Mr Biden’s arrival at the nearby Greenwood Cultural Centre.

Some vendors were selling memorabilia, including Black Lives Matter hats, shirts and flags under a bridge of the interstate that cuts through the district.

The names and pictures of black men killed by police hung on a chain-link fence next to the church, including Eric Harris and Terrence Crutcher in Tulsa.

Mr Biden briefly toured an exhibit at the centre, at times stepping closer to peer at framed historic photographs, before he was escorted into a private meeting with the three survivors.

America’s continuing struggle over race will continue to test Mr Biden, whose presidency would have been impossible without overwhelming support from black voters, both in the Democratic primaries and the general election.

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