Mayor Bartlett Addresses Tulsa's Racial Divide

Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett has been attending the funerals of three African Americans killed in a shooting spree on Good Friday. The killings happened in the same city where the black community was assaulted by whites during the 1921 race riot. Bartlett tells Steve Inskeep his city has made a lot of progress since then.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma has been attending a string of funerals for three African-Americans killed in a shooting spree on Good Friday.

MAYOR DEWEY BARTLETT: It just takes you right down to your knees. It's very, very difficult.

INSKEEP: Mayor Dewy Bartlett's job is made more difficult by race. The black victims were targeted by two men - one white and another who at different times has identified himself as white or Native American. The mayor's job is made even tougher by history. Tulsa suffered a race riot in 1921. In some of the worst racial violence in American history, white people burned down an affluent black neighborhood.

Mayor Bartlett told us he's not walking away from that awful moment, but he is concerned that it will give people the wrong idea about Tulsa today.

BARTLETT: We've accomplished so much since then, especially in the last few decades, that we as a community, we really have put that behind us in recognizing our diversity and celebrating it.

INSKEEP: We had Scott Ellsworth, a Tulsa native, now at the University of Michigan, talking about that 1921 riot and the aftermath last week. And he mentioned that for a number of years afterward it did seem to be hushed up or covered up, and it really wasn't until the '90s that the city started facing directly what had happened in 1921.

BARTLETT: Mm-hmm. Well, I know Scott. I've known him for - I haven't seen him for a long, long time. And he wrote probably the best book ever about that race riot. I don't think that it just became a fairly recent phenomenon that we understood it.

I think that we did in the '90s begin a process of funding what's called the Reconciliation Park. And we placed it right next to a brand new baseball park that is right in the middle of the Greenwood area, where the race riot occurred.

INSKEEP: Mayor Bartlett, when we spoke with Scott Ellsworth about this 1921 riot, I also asked him if he thought that Tulsa had changed a lot. And he acknowledged that Tulsa has, but also said - and I want to play a piece of tape here - said that he thinks that white and black residents are likely to view this recent crime very differently.

SCOTT ELLSWORTH: I think Tulsa has changed some. You know, I think it's important to remember that Oklahoma is a very profoundly conservative state. In 2008, Oklahoma was the only state where not a single county voted for Obama. I spoke to African-American activists about the shooting, what's going on. I think that white Tulsans and black Tulsans are going to fundamentally disagree on how they see this event.

INSKEEP: Mayor Bartlett, do you think that white Tulsans and black Tulsans are seeing this event differently?

BARTLETT: No, I really don't. I really don't. I would disagree with Scott on that point. If they had looked at it differently, then we wouldn't have the real united effort to catch the suspects, but also to move ahead. Now, when the national media came to town - now they've all gone, and I think some of them had a knee-jerk reaction to focus on the race riot, and now they're gone.

And hopefully they did take away from them a good sense of the community, and of the way that we approach this event in a very positive way.

INSKEEP: You know, we talked with a member of the media who hasn't moved on, he's in Tulsa, Michael Mason of This Land Press, and an interesting statement. He was very complimentary of you, by the way. He said people probably feel more connected to this mayor than any previous. But he goes on to say that they feel - and here, I think, he's talking about African Americans - they feel deeply disenfranchised because of the city's deeply segregated urban planning.

There's a structural divide, he says. Is there a divide between white and black neighborhoods in the way that the city has been laid out?

BARTLETT: Somewhat, and that's a holdover from the past, but it has changed - I wouldn't say has - but it is changed and has been several years. We have a community called Gilcrease Hills in the predominately African-American community that was a planning process about, oh, 20 or 30 years ago, and it took a while to get off. But now it's fully developed. It's a very integrated neighborhood, and that's one example.

INSKEEP: What would you say to African-American residents who've told us, well, that they think that the parks are better in the white areas, that the development money is more likely to go into white areas, the arts and design district is a white area? They're not saying nothing is spent in North Tulsa, but that there is a difference.

BARTLETT: Well, I'd say that that's the perception that unfortunately is thrown around, and I would disagree with it. And we'll show by example. If they could just give us a little bit of trust, once we complete a park, we'll show them - say, hey, this is what we can do.

INSKEEP: You have an arts and design district in Tulsa called the Brady District, one of many things named after a man named Brady, Tate Brady, who was the founder of Tulsa, but in more recent years has also been reported to be a member of the Klan. What do you do with a piece of information like that?

BARTLETT: Well, the thing we do, I think, is recognize it, and certainly it shouldn't stop us from moving ahead. That particular part of the downtown area is part of the area that was devastated by the race riot in 1921. So whatever Tate Brady did back in his early days, you know, that's - the historians will find that out or at least make this note of it. But he was also - he was an early settler of the community.

What I think we should do is certainly keep the name - I mean everybody knows it as the Brady District. And simply changing the name, that to me is somewhat window dressing. The real focus should be changing and making certain that our diversity is celebrated and that we understand that.

INSKEEP: Dewey Bartlett is mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, lifelong Oklahoman. His father was governor and senator from the state. Mayor Bartlett, thanks very much.

BARTLETT: Steve, thank you very much.

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