Editor’s note: The following news analysis article represents a deeper level of commitment to community news coverage. Look for more in-depth reporting in the future.
Inside the square glass castle of Tulsa’s City Hall last week, the grandson of a Tulsa Race Riot survivor, James L. Johnson, implored the Tulsa City Council to change the name of downtown’s Brady Arts District. The district’s namesake is W. Tate Brady, a member of the Ku Klux Klan whose actions incited the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.
“I don’t call it a riot,” Johnson said, choking back tears. “I call it what (my grandmother) called it: a massacre. I haven’t been downtown in three years because of the things she told me happened there.”
Johnson and six others spoke of the hurt they felt at the commerce and art thriving under the banner of Tate Brady and the disrespect it showed for the tax-paying survivors of the riot and their descendants.
Kristi Williams, who organized the Coalition for Social Justice and is leading the charge to oust the Brady name from Tulsa areas, said that having Tate Brady’s name “does not symbolize a unified Tulsa and is an insult to the tax-paying survivors who live here.”
Williams explained it this way: “The historical society here said Tate Brady made huge contributions to Tulsa—and he did, he put money into Tulsa. What if Timothy McVeigh’s family were rich, and they put a lot of money into Oklahoma City, and Oklahoma City said, ‘Regardless of the past, we’re going to name this district the McVeigh District’?”
What’s In a Name?
When the Tulsa Race Riot broke out in the Greenwood area on May 31, 1921, white mobs invaded the thriving black community, burning buildings to the ground and forcing residents and business owners to flee. The Red Cross estimated that 300 died, although some historic accounts still stick to the 38 victims documented by death certificates. Thousands of homes burned to the ground.
One of Tulsa’s founders, Tate Brady, was among several white men who volunteered to keep watch the night of May 31 and the early morning hours of June 1 as the riot raged on. He told the Tulsa World he saw “five dead negroes” that morning. One of them had been dragged behind a car with a rope tied around his neck. Clearly Brady was present in the area; we don’t know what he did or didn’t do that night. Brady’s presence during the riot was just one episode among several where he was involved in political violence. We know that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan by then, as established later in a 1923 publication Proceedings of the Oklahoma Military Commission in the Matter of Klan Activity in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In 1995, the Greenwood Cultural Center’s exhibit “The African American Experience” was the first to reveal Brady’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. A 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Interior called “The Final 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconnaissance Survey” [pdf] once again outlined Brady’s involvement in the Ku Klux Klan.
Finally, in September of 2011, This Land Press published an extensive history of Tate Brady in the article “The Nightmare of Dreamland,” by Lee Roy Chapman. The article revealed that Brady not only was a Klansman, but that he brought national Ku Klux Klan leaders to Tulsa for recruitment purposes. Following the riot, the article revealed, Brady attempted to usurp land from the citizens of Greenwood, and then allowed the Ku Klux Klan to build a large temple on property he owned.
The legacy media in Tulsa has largely downplayed Brady’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. For example, the most substantial discussion in the Tulsa World prior to the publication of “The Nightmare of Dreamland” was a lifestyle section article on a tour of homes by Randy Krehbiel, entitled “Brady Mansion Tops Tour.” It took issue with the Greenwood Cultural Center exhibit, stating “There is even less to indicate (Brady) had anything to do with the Klan” and sourced Brady’s family to deny Ku Klux Klan involvement.
The Klan of that period struck terror into the heart of black people, but it’s easy to forget that blacks weren’t their only targets. Angie Debo, one of the premier historians of the Southwest and Oklahoma, quotes the principles of the Oklahoma Ku Klux Klan in her novel Prairie City: “The Ku Klux Klan is a white man’s organization…a Gentile organization….we restrict our membership to native-born American citizens….a Protestant organization.” In a city where the Catholic and Jewish communities are so integral, Brady’s name becomes even more inflammatory.
The Brady Name Dilemma Today
Community leaders calling for the renaming of the Brady areas are primarily focused on the highly visible “Brady Arts District” name.
The business owners in the Brady Arts District are chagrined by the activism. They’ve been building the Brady brand for the past several years in anticipation of the growth stimulated by the new baseball park and this year’s opening of several arts organizations in the neighborhood.. Members of the Brady Arts District Business Association and the Brady Arts District Owners Association have acknowledged Tate Brady’s history and its overshadowing of the good things happening in the Brady Arts District now, and they insist it’s not their intention that anyone be hurt by the name of the district. The district’s name comes from the name of street, they argued before the City Council, and not the man.
Thursday evening, at the Tulsa City Council’s weekly meeting, members of the Coalition for Social Justice intend to call for the renaming of Brady Street, with the hope that then the district organizers, neighborhood association members, and theater owners will follow the leadership of the City Council..
According to Section 504 of Title 11 of the city charter, which pertains to street names, “The names of any streets opened or established shall be designated by the Director in conformity with the existing street naming system.” An aide to the Tulsa City Council described the process of passing an ordinance:
The actual ordinance changing the street name would need to be sponsored by a City Councilor… if approved by the City Council, the ordinance would go on to the Mayor for his approval or veto…. When a portion of Cincinnati was changed to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the ordinance changing the name was approved on 6/9/11, but the Council was not able to allocate funding for the signage until 3/29/12.
The aide couldn’t estimate how much the changing of the name of Brady Street might cost, but she did say $85,000 was allocated to change the name of Cincinnati Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from East Archer Street to East 66th Street North. In a district that has received over $25 million dollars in development in recent years, the cost of changing the Brady name seems insignificant. It’s also worth noting that the taxpayers of Tulsa give approximately $2 million each year to the Metro Chamber of Commerce for image marketing of Tulsa as part of the Chamber’s visitors and conventions efforts.
Other communities have dealt with this same issue. The University of Oklahoma changed the name of a building on its campus in the 1980s. Recently, the city of Memphis, Tennessee made the decision to change the names of three city parks, which had commemorated a Ku Klux Klan leader.
Tulsa is a city that has been divided by racism and is unique among American cities in that bigotry led to mass scale destruction, and even a “massacre” in some family minds. The city must now grapple with the fact that the Brady name is emblazoned across a section of the city that is viewed as leading a renaissance. For decades after the 1921 Race Riot, the city chose to deal with the repercussions by ignoring its history altogether. Now that reconciliation is part of its civic and cultural dialogue, Tulsa has an opportunity to perform reconciliation in action, or to stifle the community’s healing with inaction.
What it chooses to do will remain up to its people and leadership.