Black residents hope for financial reparations as US President Biden prepares to attend commemorations of 100th anniversary of Tulsa race massacre in Oklahoma state.

People partake in a candlelight vigil in the Greenwood district during commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on May 31, 2021 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
People partake in a candlelight vigil in the Greenwood district during commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on May 31, 2021 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (AFP)

African-American residents in Tulsa, the US city that still bears the scars of a 1921 racial massacre, are eagerly awaiting the arrival of President Joe Biden, hoping he will hear their call for financial reparations.

The Democratic leader, who has benefited from a strong support base among Black voters, will attend Tuesday's commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in US history. 

"I just want him to feel our pain," said local activist Kristi Williams on Monday in the US state of Oklahoma. Williams, who is descended from some of the massacre victims, wants Biden to "do us right."

"It's been 100 years, and we have been impacted negatively, from housing, economic development, our land has been taken," she told AFP news agency.

"This country, right now has an opportunity to right this wrong."

READ MORE: Pop culture pushes forgotten Tulsa massacre into mainstream America

1921 massacre 

On Monday, hundreds gathered for an interfaith service dedicating a prayer wall outside historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa's Greenwood neighbourhood 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 offering prayers and remarks outside the church that was under construction and largely destroyed when a white mob descended on the prosperous Black neighbourhood on May 31 1921, burning, killing, looting and levelling a 35-square-block area. 

Estimates of the death toll range from dozens to 300. Nearly 10,000 people were left homeless.

In 2001, a commission created to study the tragedy concluded that Tulsa authorities themselves had armed some of the white rioters.

Biden said on Monday that "the federal government must reckon with and acknowledge the role that it has played in stripping wealth and opportunity from Black communities" such as Greenwood.

In Tulsa, this is just the beginning: residents expect further action from a president who has cautiously declared support for looking into financial reparations for Blacks.

'It hasn't changed'

The mayor of Tulsa formally apologised on Monday for "the city government's failure to protect our community in 1921."

"The victims – men, women, young children – deserved better from their city, and I am so sorry they didn't receive it," G T Bynum said in a statement.

In this city in Oklahoma, part of the previously slave-owning US south and a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, the effects of the massacre are still felt.

There are marked inequalities between the northern part of Tulsa, which is predominantly Black, and the south, which has mostly white residents.

"When tourists visit Tulsa, one of the things that they say is that they can't believe how segregated it still is, or how racism is so evident," said Michelle Brown, who runs educational programs at a cultural centre.

Billie Parker, a 50-year-old African-American woman, said Tulsa is the same as when she was growing up there. "It hasn't changed. We're still separated."

She said Black residents are still disadvantaged compared to the city's white residents. Reparations could, she believes, help Greenwood improve its schools.

Many in Greenwood say it's time for the state to help the neighbourhood regain its prosperity, which burned to ashes in the fires of 1921.

"There's nothing here but grass, but there was investment, there was wealth, there was life," said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat. She is the chief sponsor of a bill on federal slavery reparation payments to African Americans.

In mid-April, a US congressional committee voted to advance the bill to the House of Representatives.

On April 19, some of the last 100-year-old survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre came to Washington to testify before Congress and ask that the country recognise their suffering.

The 2001 commission had recommended that Greenwood residents receive compensation. But so far, reparations have not been paid.

'It is time to heal'

Beyond financial compensation, city residents are counting on Biden's visit and the ceremony for the massacre's 100th anniversary to bring more attention to the tragedy, which has long remained taboo.

Tulsa has also begun to excavate mass graves, where many Black victims of the massacre are buried, in an effort to shed more light on the city's dark past.

For LaShaundra Haughton, 51, the great-granddaughter of some of the massacre survivors, "it is time to heal, it is time to tell the truth, it is time to bring everything to light."

Source: AFP