When President Donald Trump announced on June 10 that he was going to have his first post-coronavirus campaign rally in Tulsa, it stunned a city still grappling with one of the darkest racist histories in the country.
Trump said his rally was planned for June 19 — Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of black slaves. In Tulsa, where hundreds of black citizens were murdered 99 years ago in a massacre that targeted a prosperous black community in what’s now the downtown Greenwood District, the announcement was met with shock and anger.
But it was also met with excitement. Though Tulsa has a reputation as being perhaps the more liberal of Oklahoma’s two biggest cities, it overwhelmingly went for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, as did every other county in Oklahoma..
The Trump administration said it picked Tulsa because Oklahoma had done so well in handling the coronavirus outbreak that’s halted the country and world since it first began spreading in late 2019. It’s true that Oklahoma’s numbers, figures that are complex enough to be almost impossible to compare with other states, are lower than some other parts of the United States. But the number of positive cases have also been on a steady incline since early June, when Gov. Kevin Stitt allowed the state to fully re-open.
And it was Stitt’s siren call that possibly lured Trump here in the first place. Stitt and Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell had offered Oklahoma up as a possible site for the national GOP convention later this year after North Carolina and its Democrat Governor, Roy Cooper, withdrew from holding the event.
Oklahoma didn’t get the convention, it instead went to Florida, but it got Trump’s rally instead.
Nevertheless, many of the city’s Trump critics didn’t buy the president’s explanation. Had he chosen Tulsa because of its re-opening plan? Or had Trump, known for his desire to create headlines with his every move, chosen the city, and the Juneteenth date in particular, because of Tulsa’s immoral racial history and the lingering cloud that covers the city because of the Race Massacre, which this year saw its 99th anniversary?
Regardless, Trump is coming to Tulsa, though the date of his rally was moved to June 20, and Trump aides said the President had not been aware of the significance of the date.
And while the Tulsa Race Massacre will, and in the case of national attention on Trump’s visit, already has, serve as a backdrop to the rally, there are many more racial incidents that curl like inky fingers around the city’s recent history as well.
If the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is the first thing someone thinks about when the words “Tulsa” and “race” are mentioned, it wasn’t always that way. For one, many Oklahomans grew up without ever knowing about the massacre, only finding out about the event, where armed white Tulsans shot, burned and bombed the prosperous Black Wall Street area of the city, later as the city first began attempts to reconcile its current image with its racist past.
But Tulsa’s dark history extends even further back through time. W. Tate Brady, one of the founders of the city, was also a member of Tulsa’s early Ku Klux Klan chapter.
This Land Press, a now-defunct alternative newspaper, wrote about Brady’s connection with the KKK in 2012, and the response to the article exposed the deep-seated racism that exists in Tulsa even today.
Brady, in many ways, was synonymous with the city. In 1898 Brady signed the city’s charter, and before long he was a fabulously wealthy oilman. He died of suicide in 1925, mostly penniless after struggles with alcohol and other vices.
Brady was a complicated figure. There are stories of him treating black Tulsans with respect, offering to train them to open their own businesses and often hiring black Tulsans at his businesses. But there are also stories of Brady serving as a watchman during the Race Massacre. Hundreds of black men were killed during the massacre while white guards — Brady among them— patrolled the streets.
Black men were rounded up and imprisoned in a makeshift internment camp at what is now known as the Brady Theater, just blocks away from the site of the massacre.
Just north of Brady’s namesake venue sits Cain’s Ballroom, a world-renowned concert venue known for its intimate setting and the number of historical acts that have played there. Outside of the building are dozens of Hollywood Star-styled symbols on the ground, honoring musicians who’ve held concerts there. Outside the front door sits a star with the name W. Tate Brady emblazoned on it. The ballroom once served as a garage for his numerous automobiles.
The part of downtown that held the Brady Theater and Cain’s Ballroom was called the Brady District. It sat adjacent to the Greenwood District, home to the massacre.
The district’s main thoroughfare was called Brady Street.
After the This Land Press article, then-City Councilor Blake Ewing attempted to rename the street, but was met with much pushback. Some Tulsans questioned why there was a movement to rename a street that honored a man who helped build Tulsa from the ground up? Never mind the skeletons in his closet.
Business owners in the area complained they would have to pay money to change their signage and the addresses where bills and invoices were sent to.
How much would it cost to change the street signs?
In the end, the weakest of compromises was reached. The street would be renamed, from Brady Street to M.B. Brady Street. It was no longer named after Tate Brady, nor after any Tulsan. The street’s new namesake was a Civil War photographer who, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, had never set foot in Oklahoma, much less Tulsa.
Still, some change has come to the district. The area rebranded itself as the Tulsa Arts District, and the Brady Theater has changed its name to the Tulsa Theater. In 2018, as he was preparing to leave office, Ewing again proposed a change to the freshly renamed M.B. Brady Street. It is now called Reconciliation Way, a nod to the racial under and overtones of the area, as well as the nearby John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park.
In the 1960s, construction started on the Interstate 244 bridge just north of Tulsa’s downtown. By this point the downtown Black Wall Street had been built, bombed out of existence, and then rebuilt by black Tulsans determined to not let their racist neighbors force them out of their prosperous creation.
Instead, it was Urban Renewal that continued what the massacre started, and by the time the bridge was finished, downtown had been effectively cut off from the northern part of the city. Today, “north Tulsa” is synonymous with “black Tulsa,” and some Tulsans and nearby suburbanites mention that part of the city in whispers.
Policing in the area is different, more aggressive, as anyone who has been on police ride alongs in the city’s different districts can attest. When Live PD, a popular television show that airs “live” broadcasts of policing interactions came to Tulsa, its cameras often found their way to north Tulsa. The show’s contract with Tulsa was not renewed in 2017 after then-Police Chief Chuck Jordan said he didn’t believe it showed Tulsa in a positive light. And Mayor G.T. Bynum said at the time he didn’t approve of the show, saying “I’m not a fan of a TV show that is trying to feed off the difficulties our police officers face.”
Before long, however, the show was back. This time Bynum credited the show with being a positive vehicle “because I think it is important for the people to see what our officers actually deal with out in the field.”
Bynum, a Republican who was elected in 2016, had campaigned on a platform that included pledging to work to change the life-expectancy of those north of Tulsa’s I-244 bridge, which is 10 years less than Tulsans who live south of the bridge.
Live PD made a star of Sean, “Sticks,” Larkin, a Tulsa police Sergeant with the department’s Gang Unit. Larkin appeared on a controversial episode during the show’s initial run in Tulsa, and was filmed grilling a black Tulsan about his gang affiliation. The man continually argued with Larkin that he was not a member of a gang, and critics at the time complained that the episode showed a clear-cut case of racial profiling.
By the time the city initially cut ties with Live PD, Larkin had become a fan favorite, and started flying back-and-forth from Tulsa to the show’s television studio in New York, where he served as commentator. When LivePD returned to Tulsa, Larkin had become a full-fledged television star, complete with more than 500,000 combined followers on Twitter and Instagram, a famous girlfriend, and fan-fiction written about him on the internet.
But after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police last month and protests broke out across the country and in Tulsa, things quickly changed. Tulsans rallied and protested on I-244, the very bridge that had segregated north Tulsa from the rest of the city. One of their demands was that Tulsa end its relationship with Live PD.
At first, Bynum declined, saying on a local conservative radio show that “you know how I feel” about efforts to send Live PD packing. But later that same day Bynum met with local activists and announced he would indeed end Live PD’s existence in the city.
Since then the entire show has been canceled, as has COPS, a similar show that was created more than three decades ago. Larkin, on June 2, posted a black square, a sign of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on his Instagram page along with the hashtag #theshowmustbepaused.
But he also teased a return of Live PD, retweeting on June 9 a tweet by show host Dan Abrams who promised the show would “come back.”
Tulsa, like many medium-to-large cities, struggles with the relationship between its police force and its black citizens.
But years before calls for police reform began, it also struggled with the relationship between its black and white officers.
In 1994, a former Tulsa Police Department officer named Roy Johnson filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa alleging that the police department had racist hiring, firing and promotion policies.
About four years after Johnson filed his lawsuit, it was given class-action status, allowing other officers to join in. In 2003 federal courts accepted a settlement, over the objections of the city’s police union.It wasn’t until 2010 that it was finalized — and even then the fraternal order of police declined to sign the document.
Part of the consent decree agreed upon in 2010 was that all Tulsa police vehicles would have cameras installed on the dashboard. But that process wasn’t a smooth one and it was years before the cameras were successfully installed. At first the city bought a number of cameras and in-car laptops to run the cameras. But the laptops and cameras didn’t work together well, and in 2012 the city started over and purchased new laptops.
Installation itself was a mess, with city workers going around the clock to install miles of wiring in each squad car to connect the laptops to the cameras.
Then the cameras themselves were discontinued, and Tulsa police had to purchase new, hi-definition cameras. The picture of course would be clearer, but the file size for each car’s video would grow enormously. The system was designed so that an officer could pull his or her squad car into division headquarters at the end of a shift and the video would be wirelessly pulled from the vehicle and put into on-site storage. But now the videos were in high definition, and took longer to upload. This resulted in an online traffic jam of sorts, as the system was unable to finish one upload before the next vehicle would pull in. Late arrivers back to headquarters would be stuck behind a line of squad cars, all awaiting their turn to upload the day’s recordings.
It wasn’t until 2015 that the department began to get the kinks worked out, and of course, by then, most of the country had abandoned the limited viewing range of dashboard cameras for cheaper, more reliable body-worn cameras. But Tulsa police were under a court-ordered consent decree and had to finish dash camera installation before they could start the process of moving over to body cameras.
On April 6, 2012, a white Chevrolet pickup pulled up outside of Deon Tucker’s house. Tucker and his friend David Hall were on the porch and heard the driver of the pickup ask for directions. Then the driver and passenger opened fire, shooting Hall and Tucker. The pickup then sped away.
Both men survived and later learned they were among five people shot during a racist shooting spree that left three others — William Allen, 31, Dannaer Fields, 49, and Bobby Clark, 54 — dead.
All the victims were black and lived on the city’s north side. Police later learned from victim accounts that the shooters had been white (or at least white passing, one of the shooters is identified in court records as being Native American) and officers quickly realized there was an obvious racial element to what were quickly deemed the “Good Friday Shootings.”
Eventually both Jacob England and Alvin Watts were arrested for the crimes and it was perhaps little surprise that the shootings were racially motivated. England had posted on social media that he was angry that his father had been killed by a black man, and used a racial slur. He said he missed both his father and fiancee, who had died early that year. Watts replied “I kno I miss them 2.”
Watts and England both eventually pleaded guilty and received life without parole sentences. And even though the 1921 Race Massacre had yet to truly reach the nation’s consciousness, it served as a backdrop for a city that has yet to heal from its racist past. Then-mayor Dewey Bartlett often referenced what was then referred to as the “Race Riot” when he talked about the Good Friday shootings, and said the national media often referenced the massacre when they called to speak to him about the killings.
“I knew the Race Riot was the standard by which we were going to be judged,” Bartlett told the Tulsa World in 2017.
“I was not going to deny it, … the whole community knows it is a tremendous blemish on our history, but we have to show that we are not that way any more.”
On Oct. 21, 2011, Elliott Williams’ relatives took the military veteran to a hotel in Owasso. A breakup with his wife had left Williams despondent and unable to sleep. While at the hotel, Williams reportedly caused a disturbance in the lobby.
Owasso police arrived, but couldn’t calm him down. They eventually pepper sprayed Williams and took him to the city jail. While there his condition worsened, and his mental state deteriorated. Before he was transferred to the Tulsa County Jail, Williams, who relatives said had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was saying he wanted to die, hiding under benches, stripping himself naked and barking like a dog.
After more than five days on the concrete floor of his Tulsa County jail cell, Williams died naked, cold and alone, unable to move.
Hungry and thirsty, jail video showed Williams, who had broken his neck at some point during his incarceration, screaming for help. Instead jailers mocked him, told him he was faking, and put food and drink just out of his reach. Though Williams begged for something to drink, he couldn’t pick up the styrofoam cups of water they placed near him.
One day turned to two, three and four days. On the fifth day, none of the jail’s staff bothered to enter Williams’ cell.
According to court records, the jail’s medical staff began to wonder if Williams might actually be paralyzed from a broken neck, as he claimed. But those in charge did nothing to find out whether his claims were true.
Instead, they watched him slowly dying on a video camera in a jail cell a federal judge eventually referred to as “a burial crypt.”
An autopsy later found that Williams had died of “complications of vertebrospinal injuries due to blunt force trauma, starvation, and dehydration.” His family sued, and was awarded $10 million by a federal jury.
Williams’ death came before national attention turned toward law enforcement violence and indifference. When Williams died, his story was buried deep inside the local paper. His death only gained widespread exposure following high-profile police shootings across the country, and in Tulsa, that exposed the divide between law enforcement and black citizens.
In 2014, a mixed-race Tulsa teenager named Jeremey Lake was gunned down in the street not far from downtown just outside his aunt’s house. Lake, whose mother was sick, lived with his aunt and had recently started dating a white girl whose father just happened to be a longtime Tulsa police officer.
Lake was killed in the middle of the night, after most Tulsans had gone to sleep. Many were surprised to awake the next morning to find that married officers Shannon and Gina Kepler had been arrested in connection to Lake’s killing. Gina Kepler, who was initially held as an accessory, had her case later dismissed.
Lisa Kepler, the couple’s daughter, told reporters that her father was upset with her for running away and dating someone he disapproved of. She said Shannon Kepler pulled up in a black vehicle, briefly argued with her, then shot Lake in the chest before speeding away.
Kepler told investigators that Lake had pulled a weapon on him, though Lisa Kepler said Lake had only offered to shake her father’s hand, and either way no weapon was ever found on or around Lake’s body. Kepler was charged with murder, and investigators found that he had searched through a police database of information to find dirt on Lake. On one of the documents Kepler had printed out, he wrote down Lake’s address, then apparently drove there and shot the teenager.
Since Kepler was not on duty at the time of the shooting, it was not technically an officer-involved shooting, though it was framed locally and nationally as being a case of a white officer shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager and it happened just months after a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, sparking protests and violence there.
Chuck Jordan, who was Tulsa’s police chief, described the shooting not as an officer-involved shooting, but instead often referred to it as a case of domestic family violence. Kepler went to trial four times — the first three ended in mistrial — before he was eventually convicted of manslaughter.
Less than a year later, Tulsa was again embroiled in a police shooting controversy. The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office had an undercover task force that, in part, attempted to find and arrest illegal gun dealers. A man named Eric Harris became the target of the task force, despite the fact that he wasn’t a big gun-runner and only occasionally sold guns in order to make a quick buck or help feed a drug habit.
On April 2, 2015, a white undercover deputy met with Harris, who was black, outside of a Dollar General store near a local elementary school. Harris had a single unloaded firearm in his backpack that he intended to sell, but video from inside the deputy’s pickup showed he quickly became wary of the situation. Before long, other undercover officers quickly pulled vehicles up alongside the pickup and Harris, faced with arrest, fled on foot up the street.
Harris, 44, was eventually tackled and pinned down in the road. One of the last people to approach the scene was 72-year-old Robert Bates, a reserve deputy and friend of then-sheriff Stanley Glanz. Bates had actually supported Glanz financially during his many campaigns for sheriff and even served as Glanz’s re-election campaign chairman in 2012.
Bates, the sheriff’s office later said, had donated vehicles and equipment to the department. One piece of equipment Bates had donated, ironically, was a small camera attached to a key fob that could be used to secretly record video. On the day deputies chased Harris, one of them was carrying that key fob. And it recorded Bates ambling toward the tackled Harris, pointing a gun at him, and shooting him just under the right arm.
Bates, the video showed, quickly dropped the handgun and said “I shot him. I’m sorry.” Harris replied “you shot me, man,” and later — in a sentence eerily similar to one said by black men who are killed by law enforcement nationwide — “I’m losing my breath.”
“Fuck your breath,” a deputy replied.
That deputy later said he didn’t know Harris had been shot.
Harris died, and it was only days later that the sheriff’s office admitted that Bates had been the shooter. Records later showed Bates had been investigated years prior for copious amounts of misconduct as a reserve deputy, including making arrests he was not supposed to make and going on high-risk warrant services reserve deputies were not supposed to attend.
Glanz, it turned out, had done more than turn a blind eye to Bates’ misdeeds — he actively covered them up, ordering the details of the internal investigation into Bates be kept from reporters and failing for years to discipline his friend for a number of other incidents.
Bates was later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison, though he served less than half that sentence. In 2016 Glanz stepped down as sheriff, a post he’d held for almost three decades, after he was convicted of two misdemeanors that emerged as a result of a grand jury investigation into the sheriff’s office.
Tulsa County settled with the Harris family for $6 million in 2018.
Less than two years after Harris was killed, a black Tulsan named Terence Crutcher stopped his sport utility vehicle in the street near 36th Street North and Lewis Avenue. Betty Shelby, a Tulsa police officer who was headed to an unrelated call, happened to drive past Crutcher’s vehicle.
She inspected the vehicle and then spoke with Crutcher, who she said was behaving oddly. Alone, and with no backup close, Shelby began to back toward her squad car while ordering Crutcher not to reach into his pockets or to enter his vehicle.
A police helicopter, in which sat Shelby’s husband, Dave Shelby, and another officer, flew overhead. Footage from the helicopter shows Crutcher walking to his vehicle with his hands in the air as Betty Shelby and another officer approach. One officer in the helicopter called for a Taser to be used on Crutcher and said he looked “like a bad dude.”
“He might be on something,” he said. Crutcher’s autopsy showed he had PCP in his system at the time.
Other officers arrived and Crutcher eventually approached his vehicle. Shelby then shot and killed Crutcher, saying she feared he was reaching into his vehicle for a weapon. Police found no weapon in his vehicle.
Shelby was charged with first-degree manslaughter just six days after the shooting, an unprecedented turnaround for a case involving a criminal charge of an on-duty police officer. Jordan, the police chief, promised that “justice” would be done, and Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler promised to give his full attention to the case, despite the well-known difficulties that come with prosecution of police officers.
In turn, the local police union filed a bar complaint against Kunzweiler and later supported a different candidate who unsuccessfully attempted to unseat Kunzweiler as DA in 2018
During Shelby’s trial, Kunzweiler and prosecutor Kevin Gray detailed lengths the police department went to help Shelby in the wake of the shooting, including giving her days to compose herself before giving her official statement, and even letting her watch video of the shooting before speaking with officers.
Who, Kunzweiler asked, is allowed that much time and leeway before speaking to officers after they’ve killed an unarmed person? Only a cop, he said, urging the police department during the trial to handle investigations of their own officer-involved shootings differently.
But jurors were unswayed. After half-a-day of deliberations they acquitted Shelby and she was quickly reinstated to the police department, though she was placed behind a desk rather than in a patrol vehicle.
Not long after, Shelby resigned, and she eventually became a deputy in Rogers County, whose sheriff was a former officer in Tulsa and who had at times criticized Tulsa’s police chief.
She now trains other officers in surviving the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting.
Discord between the community and police officers is not always due to high-profile police killings or jail deaths, however.
In 2016, in the days leading up to a community panel on race which he was scheduled to help lead, Tulsa police Maj. Travis Yates penned an article for his website, lawofficer.com, titled “This is war.”
Yates, in the article, said he was upset over killings of police officers in Dallas in Baton Rouge, La.,that year, and compared how he felt at the time to his post-9/11 experience.
“We are at war! The men and women behind the badge know it. Good leaders know it and decent communities know it. For the safety of all of our men and women behind the badge, it is time our country knows it,” Yates wrote in the article.
Yates eventually rewrote the story, and headline, and said later he did not consider himself or his department to be at war with Tulsa citizens.
Less than a week after the article was published, Yates was transferred from his post as head of the department’s Gilcrease Division, which oversaw the largely black northern part of Tulsa. He was replaced by Wendell Franklin, who was Tulsa’s only black district commander. Franklin, who in 2003 said in response to the Black Officer’s Lawsuit in Tulsa that he’d seen no evidence of bias or racism in the police department, has since become Tulsa’s police chief.
Yates has not stayed out of the headlines. In the days after Tulsans — and much of the country — protested in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, Yates went on a local conservative radio and downplayed the idea that race might have played a role in Floyd’s killing.
A week later, Yates took to the airwaves again, and said he’d seen research that said police officers were “shooting African Americans about 24% less than we probably ought to be based on the crimes being committed.”
In 2018, Yates wrote an open letter to Tulsa’s mayor and said any disproportionate policing in Tulsa’s black neighborhoods was a result of “fatherless homes” and allegations of racism in policing are “dangerous” and a “great scam,” according to Public Radio Tulsa.
In response to his comments about officer-involved shooting demographics, the department distanced themselves from his statements and downplayed his current role at the department, saying that he was currently assigned to a desk in the TPD records division.
Your financial support for our investigative journalism is now tax deductible. Click here to become a Friend of The Frontier.