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Tulsa may rename landmarks that honor Klan member

Friday - 7/26/2013, 2:14am  ET

In this June 1, 1921, photo provided by the Tulsa Historical Society are businesses that were burned and looted in Tulsa's Greenwood District during race riots that left 300 blacks dead and hundreds more wounded in a span of 18 hours. Wyatt Tate Brady, who arrived in Tulsa in 1890, had become a man of means and influence by the time the territory became Oklahoma in 1907. He helped ink Tulsa's incorporation papers and now his name is all over the city. But Brady was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and now as new questions emerge about his role in the city’s 1921 race riots, many wonder if it’s time that the city pay less tribute to its founding father. (AP Photo/Tulsa Historical Society) ONE TIME USE, DO NOT ARCHIVE

JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS
Associated Press

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- When Wyatt Tate Brady arrived here in 1890, Tulsa was just a spit of a town -- an untidy tangle of dirt streets and a handful of tents occupied by white men seeking their fortune in uncharted Indian lands.

A shoe salesman by trade, the brash and ambitious Missourian saw an opportunity and seized it. He opened a general store, followed by a hotel -- the first with baths.

By the time Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Brady was a celebrated city father. He signed Tulsa's incorporation papers, started a newspaper and chartered a train filled with boosters, including humorist Will Rogers, to promote the new boomtown to people in the East.

But a lesser-known side of Brady has become the focus of debate in his adopted hometown nearly 90 years after his death. The son of a Confederate veteran, Brady was a member of the local Ku Klux Klan. And new questions have emerged about his involvement in the most notorious event in Tulsa history, a 1921 race riot that left 300 black residents dead.

The issue is especially sensitive because Brady's name is all over town -- on a street, a mansion, a theater and a historic neighborhood. It's also the name of the city's most ambitious development effort in a generation -- a glitzy downtown entertainment district.

Brady's membership in the Klan was never a secret. It had been noted in Tulsa's historical records but was largely forgotten until a new Tulsa-based literary magazine, This Land, published a long article in late 2011 by author Lee Roy Chapman, who detailed Klan activities and Brady's involvement with the group.

Specifically, the article said, Brady created an environment of racism that led to the riot. Dozens of businesses were looted and burned to the ground, and the chaos decimated the Greenwood District, where grocers, newspapers, prominent doctors and attorneys had thrived in an area historians often call the Black Wall Street.

Even before the article was published, Tulsa had struggled to come to terms with its racial past. Black leaders had complained that the riot has been downplayed in local history. The city council, community leaders and residents have been weighing what to do about a once-proud name that is suddenly tainted.

"There are councilors who are concerned and ashamed that we have this name, and we know what Mr. Brady stood for," said Jack Henderson, the council's lone black member who proposes changing Brady Street's name to Burlington Street. On Thursday, the council put off voting on the proposed name change for two weeks, as some members wanted to hear from the public first.

Blacks account for roughly 16 percent of the city's population of 400,000.

Henderson's proposal, which is expected to come to a vote next week, reflects a recently discovered 1907 document on which someone crossed out Burlington Street and wrote Brady Street in its place.

The downtown area is "growing like it's never grown before," Henderson said in an interview. "So changing the name of the street isn't going to stop the momentum."

The council has asked business owners in the new Brady Arts District about the name, which is widely used in promotional marketing. The owners opposed any name change, concluding that it's better to be reminded of the city's checkered past in order to create a better world.

"Rather than seeking to revise history, today's residents, visitors and merchants should regard the name as a demonstration of a new set of principles," they said in a July 14 letter. "Removing the name is to surrender to the past."

Business owners have also protested that changing the name of the street would confuse visitors and hurt sales, among other concerns.

Most politicians have remained mum on the issue. Others quarrel with the idea that Brady was a major instigator of the riot. Mayor Dewey Bartlett said he's read accounts that showed disagreement over Brady's role in the unrest.

The mayor wants to keep the Brady name, citing concern that the renaming effort could become a slippery slope for other streets and landmarks named after people with questionable pasts.

"We look at history as a good teacher, not something to emulate, obviously, but in this case something to learn from and avoid," Bartlett said in an interview. "My opinion, I guess, is that I have not heard a strong groundswell of support for changing the name and to what? What are we going to call it next?"

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