Tulsa Police Lt. Marcus Harper captured a moment that he simply captioned “Embrace History” on his social media post.
During the ceremonial promotion of Wendell Franklin to Tulsa Police chief earlier this month, TPD Maj. Tracie Lewis brought to attention something that had escaped notice.
For the first time, four of Tulsa’s largest police departments have chiefs who are African American men.
That includes Franklin, Tulsa Public Schools Police Chief Matthias Wicks, Tulsa Community College Police Chief Melvin Murdock and Walter Evans, police chief at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.
After corralling the chiefs for a photo, Harper put the image online.
“Twenty years from now, that is going to be one of those Black History Month moments,” Harper said. “It was an opportunity to capture history.”
From Facebook, the photo has been shared more than 100 times from Harper’s original post. It has popped up on other platforms.
Comments are overwhelmingly positive.
“Good men.” “What a great day!” “This is awesome.” “This photo is profound.” “Tulsa’s leadership is looking promising.”
The enthusiastic response isn’t surprising.
“When you think to just 10 or 15 years ago, this isn’t something we considered possible, it’s a reality now. It’s a sign of changing times,” Harper said.
In the past 20-plus years, Harper has worked for or with each of the police chiefs.
“Even though they are in these positions, there will be great accountability,” Harper said. “Each individual has the capability to perform and do well. Time will tell.
“We can appreciate the history being made, but now work needs to be done.”
Demographers predict that in the next 25 years, the U.S. will have no dominant racial majority.
Children of today are growing into America’s most diverse society. Tulsa’s youth are experiencing that same shift.
This is why representation matters. Seeing people in power who look like you changes the way a person views the world.
Diversity, especially in leadership positions, makes a stronger community.
Walter Evans, OU-Tulsa police chief and member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board, said it didn’t occur to him until that ceremony that the city’s police chiefs were all black men.
“I feel proud not just being that it’s Black History Month, but I was thinking about a number of other things,” Evans said.
Evans recently read “Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas A. Blackmon. It is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008 that tells the history of forced labor of prisoners, who were overwhelmingly black men, in the South. The author argues slavery didn’t end with the Civil War but continued through government programs like convict leasing and harsher arrests and sentences of African American people.
This history helps explain the complicated and often tense relationship between black residents and police.
“It really struck me how lawmen were so corrupt and how they put African Americans back into slavery,” Evans said. “The mere thought of African Americans being in law enforcement, you wonder why we would want to be part of that heritage. It’s tough for an African American being in law enforcement, especially today with the racial divide between the black community and law enforcement.
“I see this as an opportunity to bridge that gap.”
Evans said his next thoughts were about the work ahead, noting that the things affecting TPD have an impact on all local law enforcement.
“I had this ‘Aha!’ moment. It’s on our hands now. It’s in our lap. This burden is about to be heavy,” Evans said.
“If there is no tangible change between the black community and law enforcement or a lack of the black community’s perspective of how they are treated by law enforcement and the community at large, words cannot describe how bad that will be for our future generations to be in law enforcement and the confidence the black community will have in law enforcement to properly serve them.”
During Franklin’s first month as chief, he has spoken publicly about needing the help of the community. No leader can do an effective job alone.
This was reflected in a Facebook post from TPS Police Chief Wicks.
“Shout out to the Black leaders and everyone’s Black history moment as we collaboratively support each other’s great work of service and saving lives,” Wicks wrote. “There’s only one way to succeed and that’s together. No other options. We love the people we serve and those with whom we serve.
“As the late great Martin Luther King Jr. asked, ‘Where do we go from here?’ We should now be able to respond to his question.
“I am very proud and honored to stand alongside these young men of honor along with Chief Franklin. You’re not alone ‘brother chief.’”
The photo represents different things to different people. It’s change, hope, possibilities and community.
“We think we are in a post-racial society where those things don’t matter and people are measured by their abilities. But it seems as if nothing is further from the truth as we are divided along color lines,” Evans said.
“We may have people in powerful positions, but there is always a segment of the community trying to pull it back to the way it used to be. That is appalling. It is important that if we are going to see change, people have to see others in power who look like them.”
Black History Month: Notable Oklahomans and state history