President Donald Trump is facing a growing outcry for choosing to hold his first election rally during the coronavirus pandemic in Tulsa, Oklahoma – the scene of one of the worst race massacres in US history in 1921.
The rally will also be held on 19 June – known as “Juneteenth” – the anniversary of the day in 1865 when a general read out Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in Texas, freeing slaves in the last un-emancipated state.
The decision to hold the rally in Tulsa in the midst of nationwide protests over racist violence and discrimination, triggered by the police killing of George Floyd, has been criticised as all the more incendiary for the widely understood historic symbolism of the Tulsa race massacre in which up to 300 black Americans were killed by white mobs.
Critics accused the president of “racially motivated trolling” and timing akin to “blasphemy”.
In the New York Times, the columnist Michelle Goldberg decried the move under the headline: “A racist president trolls his enemies with a rally on Juneteenth” while in the Washington Post CeLillianne Green, described the move as “almost blasphemous to the people of Tulsa and insulting to the notion of freedom for our people, which is what Juneteenth symbolises.”
Those planning to attend the rally will be required to indemnify the Trump campaign and others involved in the event so they will not be able to sue if they contract coronavirus.
The former Democratic presidential candidate and senator Kamala Harris, of California, tweeted of Trump’s rally: “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists – he’s throwing them a welcome home party.”
Sherry Gamble Smith, the president of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce, an organisation named after the prosperous black community that white Oklahomans burned down in the 1921 attack, said: “To choose the date, to come to Tulsa, is totally disrespectful and a slap in the face to even happen.”
If the rally went ahead, Gamble Smith said, the least the campaign could do is change the date to 20 June.
The massacre took place over two days from 31 May to 1 June in the highly segregated city, with mobs attacking the Greenwood neighbourhood of the city, known as Black Wall Street for its prosperity.
Following a familiar pattern to the racist lynchings of the era, the attacks started with accusations that a 19-year-old black man, Dick Rowland, had assaulted Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl.
As he was arrested, rumours spread that the accused man was about to be lynched leading to confrontations outside the courtroom in which shots were fired, and leading to exchanges that killed a dozen people. That in turn triggered white mobs to attack black businesses, homes and individuals.
Over two days of violence, according to a later Red Cross estimate, 1,256 houses were burned, and two newspaper offices, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, stores and black-owned businesses were among the buildings destroyed or damaged by fire.
Although the official tally at the time claimed just 36 people had been killed, historians believe the number to be considerably higher. In 2001, the report of the Race Riot Commission suggested there were between 100 and 300 deaths.
The US journalist Dan Rather said on Twitter: “So. Let’s set the stage... President Trump has chosen as the venue for his first rally in months, Tulsa, Oklahoma, site of a horrific massacre of African Americans. And he has set the date for June 19th, Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.”
The LA Times tweeted on its official account: “The Trump rally will occur on Juneteenth Day, when many Americans commemorate the end of slavery, in a city that was home to an infamous 1921 massacre of Black people, one of the worst racial atrocities in the nation’s history.”
Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said that as the party of Lincoln, Republicans were proud of the history of Juneteenth.
The campaign was aware that the date for the president’s return to rallies was Juneteenth, according to two campaign officials, who were not authorised to speak publicly about internal discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.
They said that when the date was discussed, it was noted that Biden had held a fundraiser a year ago on Juneteenth. Although choosing 19 June was not meant to be incendiary, some blowback was expected, the officials said. But the campaign was caught off guard by the intensity, particularly when some linked the selection to the 1921 massacre.