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As Greenwood Initiative seeks economic justice for black Americans, are black Tulsans convinced it will happen?

Just 12 days before the annual celebration of Black History Month, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg — standing in the Greenwood Cultural Center in the heart of the historic Greenwood District — unveiled a multibillion-dollar plan to excavate African Americans from generations of inequity.

The billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor on Jan. 19 announced a broad and ambitious proposal to increase black homeownership by 1 million, double the number of black-owned businesses and triple black household wealth.

The motivation for the Greenwood Initiative, he said, was to dismantle systemic institutional barriers that had been instrumental in hindering African Americans from achieving and sustaining the same successes experienced by other groups.

Bloomberg’s proposals, say Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, aren’t unattainable campaign promises just to woo black voters despite some national polls showing Bloomberg receiving less support from black voters than some Democratic contenders. They are real issues that can be addressed, he said.

“I think people are saying it’s about time somebody running for president is thinking about black communities,” Nichols said. “I think Black Wall Street is the perfect place to have that conversation because it really lays out that contrast that a very thriving business district, that was 100% black-owned, was completely wiped out and since 1921 there’s not been that concerted effort to make sure that we can build that kind of economic powerhouse in communities across the country.” Bloomberg’s plan is named after the city district destroyed by what is now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred May 31-June 1, 1921. The official fatality count, based on death certificates and National Guard reports, is 37, but authorities said at the time they couldn’t confirm that all deaths were accounted for.

Using the events of the massacre to illustrate the devastating impact social and political discriminatory practices had on setting back black communities economically, Bloomberg calls for investing $70 billion in the country’s 100 most disadvantaged neighborhoods to reduce poverty and create economic sustainability.

“As someone who has been very lucky in life, I often say my story would only have been possible in America — and that’s true,” Bloomberg said during his 30-minute address in Tulsa last month. “But I also know that my story might have turned out very differently if I had been black and that more black Americans of my generation would have ended up with far more wealth, had they been white. Instead, they have had to struggle to overcome great odds, because their families started out further behind, and excluded from opportunities — in housing, employment, education and other areas.”

To justify the sweeping equity campaign, Bloomberg cited statistics that showed a drop in black homeownership, that black Americans lagged in business ownership and how blacks were uniquely vulnerable to poverty.

Nichols noted that Bloomberg’s plan was particularly unique in that it marked a rare occasion where a presidential candidate outlined political actions intentionally tailored to black Americans.

“I think he understands that unless you have policies specifically for communities of color, we can only be so successful as a country,” Nichols said. “It’s not just about communities of color being more economically viable. It really is about the country and its own economic viability.”

Freeman Culver, president and chief executive officer at the Greenwood Chamber, is trying to save the last vestiges of the original Black Wall Street. In January, he launched a fundraiser on the GoFundMe crowdfunding website to secure $1 million for structural improvements to the 10 oldest buildings that encompass the area.

Culver described it as “refreshing” that Bloomberg — or any candidate, for that matter — expressed sincerity in pouring resources into black communities.

“I think someone like him in a position of great wealth can make it happen, even if he’s not president,” Culver said of the potential $70 billion federal investment. “That money would turn these communities around, and I don’t think it would take that much.”

While Culver was excited at the very prospect of the proposition, that hope was tempered by the understanding that, for now, nothing has come to fruition.

“It’s good to hear this, but until it’s in African American communities’ hands, we can’t get that excited,” he said.

Culver wasn’t the only individual who was a little skeptical about how Bloomberg’s Greenwood Initiative would be executed.

Some black residents say they still feel the sting of broken promises by politicians who pledged to deliver change, only to ultimately not follow through. They cite that as a reason for cautious enthusiasm.

Adell Mays, a longtime Tulsa resident, suggested that a person’s chances of winning a lottery jackpot are better than seeing the initiative’s goals being met.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Mays said.

Cleo Harris Jr., who owns Black Wall Street Tee’s & Souvenirs in the heart of Greenwood, said he will wait until there are tangible results first.

Harris, like many black voters, refuses to be misled yet again by symbolic gestures from a politician.

“We’ve seen these white politicians come into the black neighborhood and make these promises, throw a few bread crumbs — if that — and we don’t see anything,” said Harris. “We’re forgotten, basically. We’re only used for convenience. There are just too many broken promises from candidates.”

The Bloomberg campaign website, however, touted versions of the model working when he was mayor in New York City. During that time, he reportedly helped create initiatives that addressed poverty, closed the minority achievement gap in education and raised life expectancy rates among minority residents.

Those achievements were largely overshadowed by his steadfast support of the city’s stop-and-frisk program that critics said unfavorably targeted black and Latin American residents. Just ahead of announcing a presidential run, Bloomberg did publicly apologize for the negative impact of the law enforcement practice.

His supporters say the presidential candidate’s record of philanthropy and investment in causes related to fighting social injustices proves a significant level of commitment to issues that affect black Americans.

In 2018, the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge named Tulsa as one of five cities across the country to win its $1 million award that involved promoting public art that addresses civic issues and social themes. The funding went toward The Greenwood Art Project, which commemorates the race massacre and celebrates the district’s resilience and future.

Vanessa Hall-Harper, District 1 city councilor, says while it’s a positive sign that Bloomberg recognizes the longstanding struggles black communities have been forced historically to endure, more must be done, including providing reparations to close the racial wealth gap.

“Reparations that not only includes a check but shared resources and power,” Hall-Harper said. “Shared resources and power nationally and internationally that will give us financial stability to generate wealth for black people so we can be a competitive group and not just consumers.”

Bloomberg, Hall-Harper said, can do a lot to help the cause due to his wealth and potential influence but only “if he’s serious about it.”

“We need to own banks, we need land and land given back that was stolen, not just in Greenwood but around this country,” she said.

Gallery: Michael Bloomberg in Tulsa

Gallery: Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg makes appearance at Greenwood Cultural Center


Black History Month: John Hope Franklin

After growing up in Tulsa, where his father, celebrated civil rights lawyer B.C. Franklin, defended the rights of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, John Hope Franklin would strike his own blow for racial justice with his pen.

The Booker T. Washington High School graduate went on to become one of the country’s most respected scholars and historians and wrote several key texts, including “From Slavery to Freedom,” a definitive narrative on black history, and the book “Racial Equality in America,” taken from lectures.

In 2009, Tulsa’s John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which commemorates the victims of the race massacre, was named in Franklin’s honor. And last year, a newly consolidated elementary school was renamed for him by the Tulsa school board.

Black History Month: Notable Oklahomans and state history

Black History Month: Notable Oklahomans and state history

Permitless carry has led to fewer issued licenses, fewer people taking classes

When Oklahoma erased the requirement for licenses to carry a gun on Nov. 1, a local gun store and shooting center started a new Constitutional Carry Class aimed at those who wanted to go permit free.

What surprised the gun shop’s manager in the three months since is interest in the new class has only been moderate, while interest has renewed in the state-mandated course his shop still offers — the one that’s required to obtain a state’s Self Defense Act permit.

“The irony is our concealed-carry classes are back to filling up again,” said 2A Shooting Center manager Jason Perryman. “For a month or two prior to the law, we saw a decline, and now, we’re back to filling up those classes. It’s almost swung back up to where it was before.”

That is, from two classes a month, back up to four classes of 16 people each.

Make no mistake, the number of concealed-carry licenses issued dropped markedly in 2019, and instructors are nowhere near as busy as they were a year ago.

But after the first three months, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and local gun safety instructors cite no trends of heavy concern and point more toward what might be a new kind of normal with lesser numbers and higher quality.

OSBI’s annual reports show that 29,991 licenses were issued in 2019, a drop of 36% from 2018. It is also about 32% below the average for the previous five years, and it’s the lowest since 24,018 were issued in 2011.

The high marks for licenses issued were 60,628 in 2013 (after the Sandy Hook School massacre and the re-election of President Barack Obama) and 53,036 in 2016, prior to the election of President Donald Trump. After his election, the license sales dropped down to about 35,000 in 2017 — the second-lowest since 2011.

Prior to passage of Senate Bill 1212, which amended the Oklahoma Self Defense Act to allow open or concealed carry without a permit for anyone 21 or older (18 if military), the OSBI predicted heavy financial losses, primarily due to loss of fees connected with background checks.

November 2019 saw 348 new licenses issued, along with 1,404 renewals. December 2019 saw 278 new and 1,399 renewals, and the numbers for January were 353 and 1,579, respectively.

That trend — with totals of 1,700 to 1,800 per month — could indicate a possible total of about 20,000 licenses for 2020; but OSBI spokeswoman Brook Arbeitman said that it is impossible to know how the year will go.

“There is no way to predict how many applications we will receive because there are any number of factors that can impact an individual’s decision to acquire or renew their license,” she said.

Thus far, the drop in sales has not hit the department, she noted.

“Our staffing has not been impacted since the law went into effect because of natural attrition,” she said. “When employees have accepted other opportunities internally or externally, their position in the (Self Defense Act) Unit has not been filled. No one has been let go, and there is no expectation of layoffs since we continue to have initial applications and renewals come into the agency. Our current staff level is appropriate for the amount of applications we are seeing.”

Arbeitman reiterated the value of training and obtaining a license and noted that people can apply or renew their license online, and “now, you can track the status of your application online,” she said.

What trainers are seeing is fewer numbers overall but sessions that involve people who are more highly motivated.

Dan Detmer, an independent trainer who doesn’t advertise beyond word-of-mouth and his website and isn’t connected to a retail gun store, said concealed-carry class participation is way down, but the quality of class experience is up.

“I used to do weekly classes with 8, 12, 16 people. Now, I’m doing one class a month for six or seven,” he said. “What’s missing now, though, is that 15 or 20% who would come who had never even touched a gun. People taking the class now are interested, they ask good questions and they all have a real interest in learning about specific things.”

Any of several reasons motivate people to get a license or renew the one they have, according to Detmer and Perryman. Among those are confidence, convenience, confusion and freedom to travel.

Confidence in their knowledge and ability is important to people. Some feel it’s a kind of insurance, Detmer said.

“They want to have that license if the worst case does happen,” Detmer said. “If they end up on a witness stand, it’s something they feel like they have to show that they are responsible and sought training and a license, even though they didn’t have to.”

Convenience in interacting with law enforcement officers is another perceived benefit, Perryman said. Under the new law, someone who is carrying is not required to tell a police officer upfront that they have a firearm, but that can make interactions awkward.

“Handing them your drivers license and your permit and just telling them takes care of all that up-front, and they immediately know they’ve contacted someone who has done the background checks and taken the effort to get a permit. It’s a certain amount of peace of mind for the law enforcement officer,” he said.

Confusion still is a factor. Some sign up for the class not realizing they don’t need it anymore, but then they take it anyway. Others want the class specifically because they find the laws confusing.

“They’ll see different things on social media or friends will tell them a lot of unsubstantiated things. It’s confusing for people, too, what the law was and what it is now,” Detmer said. “It’s easier to pay the $49 to gain that preparedness and to have it all presented in a manner they can understand. They just feel better understanding it.”

Chief among the reasons for taking the class and renewing permits is travel, according to Perryman.

Some states, including Kansas, do not offer reciprocity on Oklahoma’s permitless carry option, but law enforcement officers north of the border and in most other states will honor an Oklahoma concealed-carry permit.

“I still carry wherever I go,” Perryman said. “Police are overtasked, there are not enough anywhere you go in the U.S. ... Being able to defend yourself wherever you may go always is a plus.”

Featured gallery: Most Oklahomans can carry a gun without a license. What you should know.

Most Oklahomans can carry a gun without a license. What you should know


Abortion abolitionists plan to converge on state Capitol

OKLAHOMA CITY — Supporters of efforts to abolish abortion are expected to rally Tuesday at the Capitol.

Russell Hunter, a lobbyist for Free the States, said he expects a couple of thousand people to attend the event.

Free the States supports the abolition of abortion.

The organization is backing Senate Bill 13, by Sen. Joseph Silk, R-Broken Bow, which failed to obtain a committee hearing last session. The measure, dubbed the “Abolition of Abortion in Oklahoma Act,” is still alive.

It seeks to abolish abortion, despite a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized it.

Senate Bill 13 would have the state ignore that decision. Hunter said it is not an attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade.

“It is the state of Oklahoma telling the Supreme Court that their opinion that the mass murder of pre-born humans must be legal in Oklahoma is evil and unconstitutional, and therefore, null, void and of no effect,” Hunter said. “People need to understand that we have legal, constitutional recourse when the Supreme Court errs as horrifically as they’ve erred in their abortion-related decisions.”

The measure last year drew hundreds of supporters to the Capitol.

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said that he agrees with abolishing abortion, but the measure is “fatally flawed.”

He said the measure is more of an effort to secede from the union than it is to save lives.

Last year, then Sen. Jason Smalley, R-Stroud, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, refused to hear the measure.

Smalley last month resigned his post in the Senate to take a job in the private sector.

Treat appointed Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, as chair of the panel. McCortney could not be reached for comment concerning giving the bill a hearing.

Silk said McCortney doesn’t bow to the Pro Tem quite like most legislators. He is seeking a meeting with McCortney to get the bill heard.

Silk and Hunter said the effort to abolish abortion is growing. They both give some credit to several states legalizing medical marijuana, which remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government, but it hasn’t been enforced.

Silk said another factor is people are seeing states like Oklahoma, which are controlled by Republicans but have made progress ending abortions.

Brett Farley is executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, the political arm for the Catholic church. Last year, they opposed the measure, a position which has not changed.

“I don’t expect the outcome to be any different than it was last year,” Farley said. “There have been no substantive changes to the bill and from everything I can tell, all positions across the board remain the same.”

He said the bill has the potential to expand abortion.

Courts have tossed out several Oklahoma laws that sought to put more regulations on abortion or make it more difficult to obtain the procedure.

Last week, Rose Day, a pro-life rally that is not affiliated with Free the States, was scheduled for Wednesday at the Capitol. It had to be cancelled due to poor weather conditions. A new date has not been determined.