TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) -- Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, can still remember a house engulfed in flames and bodies stacked in truckbeds - horrors that 100 years later led to a pledge by President Joe Biden to work for racial justice.
“I was quite a little kid but I remember running and the soldiers were coming in,” Randle said in an interview with Reuters as her hometown of Tulsa prepared to mark one of the darkest chapters in its history.
Monday was the centenary of a massacre targeting Tulsa’s prosperous African-American community in the district of Greenwood that bore the nickname Black Wall Street.
After a Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman, an allegation that was never proven, white rioters gunned down Blacks, looted homes and set fire to buildings block by block. More than 1,000 buildings were destroyed.
An estimated 300 people were killed, thousands were left homeless and an entire community that had been seen as a symbol of what Black Americans could achieve was devastated.
Biden declared Monday a day of remembrance, calling on Americans to “commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it.”
He acknowledged the federal government’s role in “stripping wealth and opportunity from Black communities.”
This year’s attention is a departure from the past. For decades, newspapers rarely mentioned the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921. The state’s historians largely ignored the massacre, and children did not learn about it in school, according to a 2001 report written by a state commission.
Tulsans attribute the silence to a number of factors. Black Tulsans were traumatized, feared it could happen again and did not want to pass on the information to their children, while white Tulsans would not have wanted to believe respected members of their community participated, according to Phil Armstrong, the project director of the centennial commission, and Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.
Place said the 2001 report was written before it was too late.
“Many of those survivors of the race massacre were dying or had died so it was an effort to tell their stories and to remember that part of our history and not let it go to the grave, if you will,” Place said.
The history is also recorded in court records. Randle described the bodies and burning house she saw in a deposition in a lawsuit filed in February by survivors and descendants seeking justice for victims. Calls for reparations have long gone unanswered.