Our state lost a true citizen journalist last week with the death of Lee Roy Chapman.
I wasn’t lucky enough to count myself among Lee Roy’s many friends and had only recently come to know him professionally.
I worked with Lee Roy earlier this year when he assembled and moderated a panel discussion on issues surrounding the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. He had also shared a rare video clip with The Frontier that showed the aftermath of Tulsa’s 1921 race riot.
Lee Roy was found dead at his home in Tulsa Thursday at the age of 46.
A self-taught historian, Lee Roy collected pieces of Tulsa’s past that some people would rather stay buried. He combed through old photo albums, scoured flea markets and searched obscure library archives to find much of his material.
Lee Roy’s skills as a historian and citizen journalist earned him lofty and well-deserved praise from inside and outside the state.
“I continue to benefit from Lee Roy Chapman’s expertise about Tulsa’s and Oklahoma’s history,” states a LinkedIn endorsement written by Paul Gardullo, museum curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“Lee Roy is an outstanding writer and researcher whose skills in digging up crucial archives, stories, contacts and collections have proven invaluable to my work at the Smithsonian.”
While he had no formal training as a journalist, Lee Roy’s depth of knowledge and ability to uncover uncomfortable truths should rank him among the state’s top investigative journalists. In 1999, he created the Center for Public Secrets, a clearinghouse for artifacts including photographs, posters and video of famous and infamous characters in state and city history.
He also operated Rare OK, a business that bought, sold and traded rare books, manuscripts and other archival material about Oklahoma.
Lee Roy was a contributing editor at This Land Press, which published stories including his unflinching 2011 story about Tate Brady. “The Nightmare of Dreamland: Tate Brady and the Battle for Greenwood.” The story examined the role of Brady, one of Tulsa’s most prominent founding fathers, in the Ku Klux Klan and the race riot.
Though I knew Lee Roy as a scholar and historian of Tulsa’s darkest times, he also displayed a flair for writing about pop culture. His documentary video detailing the Sex Pistols’ famed concert at Cain’s Ballroom is entertaining and enlightening.
Friends are contributing to a Go Fund Me account to support Lee Roy’s 5-year-old son and planning a memorial service, to be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Cain’s Ballroom.
A statement by friends on Lee Roy’s Go Fund Me page notes: “He leaves behind a legacy of art, articles, photography, videos, historical artifacts and a seemingly unceasing well of humorous stories, adoring friends and family, and goodwill.”
“All of those who knew Lee Roy understand that he lived a nomadic lifestyle and endured a path of financial hardship and few means,” his Go Fund Me page states. “He was wholly committed to providing for his son, and often expressed aggravation at being unable to do more.”
Comments left by friends and supporters on the page recall Lee Roy’s courage as well as his kindness:
“Tulsa’s historical canary in the coal mine. Your song is missed. Peace and light.”
“Me and the other boys in the circle will make sure your little man knows how much you loved him and how much we loved you.”
Michael Mason, editor of This Land, said he first met Lee Roy in 2010 and over a meal at Tally’s Diner — one of Lee Roy’s favorite restaurants — the two quickly bonded.
“We just began our friendship there, immediately easing into Tulsa history. I realized that meeting Lee Roy was encountering a rabbit hole of infinite depth.”
Mason called Lee Roy “a fastidious creator and … tenacious researcher.”
“One of his unsung skills was his ability to just pore through the most inane historical documents and retain it all. … These things from different sources would begin to snap together in his head. … It gave him a visibility of Tulsa’s and Oklahoma’s history that few people had.”
Outside of his professional life, Lee Roy’s authenticity endeared him to many people, especially children.
“A lot of us who have children would just marvel at the ease he had with them and the way that children found him so much fun as well and I think it’s because he was absolutely honest with them,” Mason said.