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Tulsa shootings stir up ugly memories

The killings of three black men on Good Friday have locals recalling the race riots of 1921, when African Americans were violently targeted by their white neighbors. Residents say now is the time to make changes.

April 13, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Wounded prisoners are taken to a hospital June 3, 1921, by National Guardsmen after the Tulsa, Okla., race riots.
Wounded prisoners are taken to a hospital June 3, 1921, by National Guardsmen… (Hulton Archive, Getty Images )

TULSA, Okla. — In the wake of what locals are calling the Good Friday Shootings, dozens of worried residents from Tulsa's mostly black north side attended an NAACP meeting in the heart of their troubled neighborhood for some truth-telling.

Yes, they were relieved that two men had been arrested in the shootings that left three African Americans dead and two wounded.

They were pleased that the glare of the national spotlight was forcing local officials to work with black leaders. The mayor, local U.S. attorney and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson were present at the first funeral for one of the victims Friday at the north side's Crown Hill Chapel.

But those gathered at the meeting of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People noted that crime remained a serious problem. And just look at what else is happening in north Tulsa, they said. Shopping centers closing, schools folding and a cash-strapped city preparing to bulldoze three public parks, one named for a local black pioneer.

"What can we do while we have the country's attention now?" asked J. Kavin Ross, 49.

The problem, locals say, is that they have long felt embattled, and the Good Friday attacks unearthed that ugly history.

In 1921, African Americans were chased from a well-to-do black neighborhood downtown, the Greenwood District, in the deadliest race riots the country has ever known. Half a century later, they were pushed north again by urban renewal.

At the NAACP meeting Tuesday night, residents said authorities needed to charge the suspects with hate crimes. Three days later, local prosecutors did just that, accusing Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 33, of first-degree murder and hate crimes.

Police say the men, who identified themselves as white, confessed to shooting five people, killing Bobby Clark, 54, William Allen, 31, and Dannaer Fields, 49.

On Facebook, England cursed blacks and said he became enraged after his father was shot and killed by a black man in a north Tulsa neighborhood two years ago. His death was ruled a justifiable homicide. The recent shootings came on the anniversary of his father's death.

For many in the black community, the current case will play out against the backdrop of the race riots, which killed up to 300 black residents and leveled scores of black businesses.

"The story of the riot was suppressed for a long time, actively," said Scott Ellsworth, a Tulsa native who wrote a book about the riots and now teaches at the University of Michigan. "As late as the 1990s, there were a lot of white Tulsans who had never heard of it."

Ross helped videotape statements from survivors still hesitant to talk about the violence — beatings, firebombings, shootings — perpetrated by white neighbors. His father, an Oklahoma legislator, served on a state commission on the riots.

In 2001, the commission recommended Oklahoma pay survivors and their descendants reparations. Instead, state lawmakers established scholarships for descendants, promised to redevelop Greenwood and to build a memorial reconciliation park.

A handful of black riot survivors sued the state and city in federal court, but their suits were dismissed because of the statute of limitations.

"This city has not yet come to terms with what happened in 1921, both black and white," Ross said.

The time has come, some residents say, for Tulsa officials to end the "conspiracy of silence" that reigned after Greenwood, and start talking about race, especially now that the Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin has the whole country talking.

"It's a racist city," said Deon Tucker, one of the recent shooting victims. He rubbed the spot on his chest where he was shot, right above his heart. "They try to downplay it. But white people on the south side, they see you that way, like you're going to do something."

The 44-year-old construction worker has traveled across Oklahoma, from small towns where people still stop and stare, to Tulsa's tonier south side, where whites watch him when he patronizes sit-down restaurants and stores he can't find in his neighborhood.

Tucker's home is on a street of boarded-up windows and a nearly vacant shopping center, where residents plan to hold a memorial and march Sunday for the shooting victims. He remembers when north Tulsa was a wealthy white neighborhood, before urban renewal drove blacks in and sent whites to the suburbs.

"Now," Tucker said of white neighbors to the south, "they want it back."

George Riley's funeral home was pushed north from Greenwood by urban renewal in 1976, back when the local funk Gap Band rose to nationwide fame, their name an acronym for surrounding Greenwood, Archer and Pine streets.

"It was busy out here," recalled Riley, who watched one of the shooting victims die on the lawn outside of his funeral home, and was preparing his funeral for Tuesday. "Blacks were moving in, and whites were moving out."

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