OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - When Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett announced the arrests of two white men for shooting five blacks on Sunday, he said such wanton violence had not happened “in the modern era” in Oklahoma’s second-largest city.
The modern era does not apparently include 1921, when white citizens, some of them armed by the all-white police department, burned and looted 1,000 homes and businesses in the all-black section of north Tulsa.
An official death count was never produced, but some believe it exceeded 100, and the incident remains the worst single example of racial violence against blacks in American history, said Scott Ellsworth, a history professor at the University of Michigan who grew up in Tulsa.
No one was ever arrested for any of the killings in 1921.
Nearly a century later, the Tulsa police force remains mostly white and the north side of the city is still predominantly black.
Immediately after the weekend slayings - two men and a woman were killed and two men were wounded - some blacks in Tulsa wanted to take vigilante action, said Jack Henderson, the only black member of the Tulsa City Council.
Blacks have historically been afraid to talk to the police, he said. “That fear, I believe, should not be a reality,” Henderson said, noting that the quick arrests in the case underscored the possibility of cooperation.
“We can talk to the police. We can work with them,” Henderson said.
Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan, who like the mayor is white, said he hopes the case will lead to improved relations between police and the black community.
Police and prosecutors have tried to be careful about what is revealed in their investigation, saying they are fearful of missteps that might jeopardize the prosecution.
But the Tulsa World newspaper on Monday reported that the two suspects, Jacob Carl England, 19, and Alvin Lee Watts, 33, had confessed to the slayings shortly after their arrests, citing a police report.
The police report was supposed to have omitted the alleged confessions before it was released to the media by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department, said Jason Willingham, a Tulsa police spokesman.
Shortly before the killings of Dannaer Fields, 49, Bobby Clark, 54, and William Allen, 31, England had lamented on his Facebook page that two years had passed since his father was killed by a black man, to whom he referred with a racial slur.
The reaction to the shootings in Tulsa - a city of about 600,000 people, of whom 10.5 percent are black, - showed the racial divide, the historian Ellsworth said.
Many white people in the city view the killings as an isolated incident. Black residents, however, see the case as part of an overall pattern of racism that includes the city’s resistance to affirmative action policies, racial profiling by the police and the suppression of a full accounting of the 1921 race riot, Ellsworth said.
Tulsa has seven “hate groups,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit civil rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama.
They include two Ku Klux Klan groups, a black separatist church, a black separatist network, a neo-Confederate ministry, a white nationalist organization and a neo-Nazi group.
While police have not said whether the Tulsa shootings are considered a hate crime, they come at a time of rising racial passions in the wake of the shooting death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.
Martin, who was black, was shot by a neighborhood watch captain who is white and Hispanic.
Editing By Corrie MacLaggan, Greg McCune and Paul Simao