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Courtesy Ruth Avery Collection, Oklahoma State University archives, Tulsa

Magazine | Okiecentric

Beno Hall: Tulsa’s Den of Terror

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Posted 09.03.11

The monstrous, three-story, steel reinforced, stucco building towered along the western edge of Greenwood. It dominated the landscape at the foot of Standpipe Hill, sporting a bright whitewash, the favorite color of its primary residents. Inside, its members vowed to protect their notion of “100% Americanism.” To become a guardian of liberty, they reasoned, you had to swear to secrecy and seclusion. And you had to embrace intimidation and violence as a way to assert your values.

In January of 1922, the Tulsa Benevolent Association of Tulsa, Oklahoma was officially formed as a holding company for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Incorporated. Among its founding members was Washington E. Hudson, the attorney for Dick Rowland—the young black man who was a scapegoat for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. They provided the financing and leadership to begin building their Klan temple, or Klavern, known as Beno Hall. Locals jokingly called it “Be No Hall,” as in “Be No Nigger, Be No Jew, Be No Catholic, Be No Immigrant.”

Six months after its inception and bolstered by a raffle of 13 Ford automobiles netting nearly half of the $60,000 purchase price, the Benevolent Association bought the Centenary Methodist Church, at Main and Easton streets. The organization quickly outgrew this facility and the church was razed, making way for the future monument of white supremacy. Beno Hall was built for $200,000 ($1.5 million in today’s currency). Financing of the construction was kept quiet, but the land for the building was owned by the entrepreneur, politician, and early booster of Tulsa, Tate Brady, and his wife Rachel Brady, who received a large parcel of land as a Cherokee allotment in 1910. When Beno Hall was completed, it was one of the largest auditoriums in the Southwest, holding 3,000 people. Its size alone provided Tulsa with a visual reminder of the Invisible Empire’s power, passion and presence.

Abundant evidence points the finger at the Klan for fanning the sociological tinderbox that was 1920s Tulsa. Yearning for a spark, if even an invented one, a fired-up mob of whites took the bait and burned Greenwood to the ground in the Memorial Day, 1921 Race Riot. Two months later, a national Klan official, Caleb Ridley, who was also a Baptist minister, lectured at the Tulsa Convention Hall on the principles of the Klan, calling the Riot a complete success, adding that it “was the best thing to ever happen to Tulsa and that judging from the way strange Negroes were coming to Tulsa we might have to do it all over again.”

Under the watchful eye of its Tulsa leader, the Exalted Cyclops William Shelley Rogers, membership grew to include all civic and social levels: from law enforcement to welders, bankers, dry cleaners, judges, commissioners, and oil field workers. All partook in the Beno Hall sessions that focused on increasing membership and efforts to keep Tulsa free from moral corruption and centered on family values.

Barely three months after the Riot, some 300 Tulsans, supported by a throng of 1,500 onlookers, were initiated as the first class of the Tulsa Klan No. 2. A year later, in a field north of Owasso, a nighttime “naturalization” ceremony initiated 1,020 Tulsa Klavern members before a fiery, 70-by-20 foot cross.

Recruiters known as Kleagles “capitalized upon the emotions in the wake of the race riot to propagandize the white community of Tulsa,” writes Carter Blue Clark in his 1976 dissertation, A History of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma. While the Oklahoma Klan boasted over 150,000 hooded devotees in the early 1920s, the Tulsa Klavern—a reference to the smallest local unit of the organizational structure, wherein ritual ceremonies and Klan Khoral Klub rehearsals were held—swelled to 3,000 members. Hence the need for a permanent structure—a very large, secure structure.

Nestled near the two-year-old ashes of upper-class black homes that once sprawled up the slopes of Sunset and Standpipe hills, overlooking the industry that was Greenwood, Beno Hall towered over nearly 2,000 black Tulsans as they huddled in makeshift tents. They lived within earshot of the member revelry. From the halls of Beno sprung midnight parades, cross burnings along the boundaries of Greenwood, night-riding terrors, meetings determining political candidates’ success or failure, plans to squash the proliferation of filthy people with filthy morals who bootlegged, gambled, consorted with whores, or were unfaithful husbands—all of which conflicted with the Klan’s version of white, Protestant ideology.

The Klan loved parades. The most spectacular occurred in August of 1922, while the wounds of the 1921 riot were still fresh. The parade featured 1,741 white-robed members marching silently through downtown Tulsa before an estimated crowd of 15,000. The Women of the Klan provided extra pizzazz, carrying signs with various slogans such as, “Kiss the flag or cross the pond,” a reminder that immigrants were not Americans, therefore, there should “Be None” on American soil, certainly not in Oklahoma.

The Knights had nothing against what they deemed “good niggers.” They were also morally incensed by the behavior of white men—especially the oil field workers who used the trolley system to come to downtown Tulsa, where they spent their cash on booze, dames, and pounds of cocaine, morphine, and heroin. In Tulsa, Biography of the American City, Danney Goble wrote, “Kluxers meted out rough justice to those that lived beyond the law’s bounds”—justice that predominantly involved acts against white Protestants.

The Klan wasn’t just for older white men, either. The Tulsa Klavern vigorously promoted the Women of the Klan society and an adolescent male branch called the Junior Ku Klux Klan, which recruited boys aged 12 to 18.

According to an invitation on Junior Ku Klux Klan stationery of the Tulsa Benevolent Association, a Junior KKK “Open Air Initiation” at the Lynch Farm north of Rose Hill Cemetery began at 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 18, 1924. It promised a ride to the event, if needed, and “lots of fireworks.”

When the seasons turned chilly, Beno Hall became the Juniors’ initiation site. On January 22, 1925, “All members were expected to be there, members received $.50 for each candidate they bring and new initiates must pay at least $2 on his initiation.” Further, it announced the “Final Plans for the Big Weiner and Marshmallow Roast on Thursday night, January 29, when you can bring your girl.” The attraction of the evening proved to be a talk by the assistant to the Exalted Cyclops and “ice cream sandwiches—O Boy!”

Beno Hall supplied new recruits with official Klan gear. For a premium price, reportedly pocketed by national officials, the home office in Atlanta regularly shipped cheap white sheets and pointed hats all with the tightly sewn-on patch of the organization. Yet, a Tulsa Knight’s trappings were incomplete without the Klan weapon of choice, the official KKK whipping strap.

The strap was a piece of top-grain leather four inches wide and three feet long, the handle wrapped in industrial tape, its last six inches cut into ten slits, effective for slicing through skin. Hundreds of these prized weapons arrived in Tulsa.

During the Oklahoma Klan heyday years between 1921 and 1924, officials knew of 102 Klan floggings, three killings, three mutilations (including castrations), and numerous tar-and- featherings that, as a rule, followed whippings of the victims’ backs. Official but incomplete tallies showed Tulsa County provided the most violations, with 74, Okmulgee County chalked up 20 while the rest of the state totaled 37.

At the time, lawlessness prevailed in Tulsa. A local reporter witnessed the flogging of J.E. Fletcher, an alleged car thief and bootlegger, on a remote Sand Springs road in September 1921. County Attorney John Seaver said no inquiry would be made, that Fletcher had gotten what he deserved and an investigation would just lead to criticism of the investigators. This gave carte blanche to extralegal marauding.

During that same month, a statement by H.O. McClure, president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, put the writing on the wall in a Tulsa World article: “In Tulsa our courthouse and city hall are practically filled with Klan members, elected to office with Klan support.” It wouldn’t be long before an Oklahoma governor would step in to throttle the free hand of Tulsa’s hooded fraternity.

After local Klansmen used their whipping straps to mutilate the genitalia of accused drug peddler Nathan Hantaman, the already unpopular Governor Jack Walton on August 14, 1923 declared martial law in the city and county of Tulsa. The results of the military court investigation drew statewide attention to the horror of the Oklahoma extremists as twelve locals were hauled away. The Oklahoma legislature passed an anti-mask bill hoping to stem vigilante violence.

The flamboyant Walton, aiming squarely at the Tulsa Klavern, even calling them by name, went on the attack, saying, “I don’t care if you burst right into them with a double-barreled shot gun. I’ll promise you a pardon in advance.” Additional irresponsible statements, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, censorship of the press, an effective Klan defense and counter-attack, and the extension of military rule to include the entire state, further weakened public sentiment toward the state’s leader.

Governor Walton’s declaration of war on the Order exposed their reign of terror, but they would get the last laugh. The Klan influenced the impeachment of “Jazz Band Jack” Walton, who served but ten months as governor. The boys in white cheered the demise of their nemesis in their newly dedicated Beno Hall that had earlier been the site of the Tri-State Klan convention.

The next few years saw a healthy Klavern using their North Tulsa facility for holiday dances, ice cream socials, and political plotting. The outer foliage appeared robust, but inside, the society was withering from internal disagreements, greed and graft. By 1928, the Oklahoma Klan had negligible power.

The Tulsa Benevolent Association sold the storied building to the Temple Baptist Church in 1930. During the Depression, the building housed a speak-easy, then a skating rink, then a lumberyard, and finally a dance hall before radio evangelist Steve Pringle turned it into the Evangelistic Temple of the First Pentecostal Church. In his first revival meeting, Pringle introduced a little-known Enid preacher by the name of Oral Roberts, who worked his animated, faith-healing magic on the bare lot next door. Roberts impressed in the tent atmosphere and preached with his cohort inside the vast auditorium once known as Beno Hall. His fire and brimstone was a fitting bookend to the fiery crusades of the Klan.

Throughout the seventies, Beno Hall became a Main Street blight where vagrants gambled, drug transactions took place, and sex was exchanged for money. It was destroyed in 1976, and the empty lot now belongs to the Oklahoma Department of Highways.