State officials investigate Oklahoma lake named for Tulsa Klansman

Lake Hudson is named for a prominent state legislator and attorney who also helped found the Ku Klux Klan in Tulsa

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Lake Hudson in Mayes County BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
Set on the Grand River in Mayes County, Lake Hudson is known as one of the best spots for bass fishing in the state. It’s also named for one of the founding members of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma.

The lake is named for the late Wash E. Hudson, an early board member of the Grand River Dam Authority, prominent Tulsa attorney and state lawmaker. Hudson was also a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan in Tulsa in the 1920s.

The GRDA, the state-owned electric utility that manages Lake Hudson, said it would investigate the possibility of renaming the lake after The Frontier inquired about about its namesake.

“There are many stakeholders including communities and businesses that are impacted by Lake Hudson. These stakeholders should have a voice in any future decision which may affect the lake,” the GRDA said in a statement. “Due to the ongoing nature of this issue, including the current comprehensive investigation, these are the only comments we will have, until we have concluded our investigation of the matter.”

The name of the lake has been codified in state law since the 1960s.

The GRDA said it had no record of any person or group raising any concerns about the name of Lake Hudson before.

“GRDA has a deep appreciation for all citizens of Oklahoma and a demonstrated commitment in being an Oklahoma agency of excellence,” the GRDA said in a statement.

“From our commitment to delivering dependable, reliable public power, to our important responsibility of managing our lakes and the Scenic Rivers, GRDA fosters an environment of service to our diverse customers, visitors and employees. We take these matters very seriously. GRDA is firmly committed to maintaining and promoting an inclusive environment internally and externally in the communities we serve.”

On the shores of Lake Hudson

The Lake Hudson General Store in Mayes County. The lake is a source of tourism dollars and an important part of the local economy. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier
The Lake Hudson General Store on State Highway 20 sells chopped BBQ bologna for the anglers and shad guts for the fish.

Store owner Susan Sanders said she’s never wondered who the lake was named for or heard anyone ask.

She describes Lake Hudson as a “hidden gem.” The man-made lake is a big part of the local economy and home to bass fishing and bow hunting tournaments. White pelicans visit Lake Hudson at certain times of the year.

“I would have never thought it was named for a member of the KKK,” Sanders said.

On the other side of the highway, a well-heeled gated community of large lakefront homes bears the name “Hudson Bay.”

The tagline for the City of Salina is “on the shores of Lake Hudson.”

Salina, population 1,384, is the site of the first white settlement in Oklahoma, established in 1796 as a fur trading post.

Salina Mayor Casey McWhirt said he also knew nothing about Lake Hudson’s namesake or his ties to the Klan.

McWhirt said he’s not sure how people in the area would feel about renaming the lake.

“I think people do need to be informed about it, but it should be put to a vote of the people,” he said.

Wash Hudson, eminent Tulsan and Klansman

Wash Hudson. Courtesy
Hudson, a prominent Tulsa attorney and state legislator in the first half of the 20th century, was one of the incorporators of the Tulsa Benevolent Association in 1922, which established the Ku Klux Klan in the city. He also founded the Tulsa Law School in 1923. Hudson was a member of the GRDA board of directors from 1955 until his death in 1964.

“He’s kind of an enigma in a way — he did all of these great community things, but he was one of five founding fathers of Tulsa’s Klan,” said Steve Gerkin, Tulsa historian and author of the book Hidden History of Tulsa.

Hudson was actually well liked in the city’s black community and had a history of representing black clients for free in his law practice, Gerkin said.

In 1921, Hudson was appointed to be the pro-bono attorney for Dick Rowland, the black teenager whose arrest touched off the Tulsa Race Riot.

As a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1915, Hudson received a commendation from the “colored citizens of Tulsa” for supporting a bill to fund the Colored Agricultural and Normal University at Langston — now called Langston University.

“This country is greatly in need of true-hearted men who believe in justice and fair play to all mankind,” the telegraphed commendation said.

Gerkin believes Hudson’s Klan membership was motivated by a belief that the organization would help clean up Tulsa’s problems with crime, prostitution, alcohol and drugs.

“There is this belief that everybody who joined the Klan was against blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants, but really it was the thing to do for a while,” Gerkin said. “It was like being a Kiwanis or a Rotarian.”

In the 1920s, the Klan held ice cream socials, sing-alongs and parades in Tulsa Gerkin said. The Klan also had active women’s and youth groups.

In 1924, Hudson briefly renounced the Klan after a Klansman from the East Coast gave fiery racist a speech in Tulsa against Catholics, Jews and blacks, according to Gerkin’s research.

However, Hudson later re-joined after a change in leadership in the local Klan.

Efforts underway to rename public spaces in Oklahoma

TU Trustees approved a recommendation to remove John Rogers’ name from the law school building in 2016. Frontier file
Across Oklahoma, efforts to rename public spaces named in honor of Klansmen and historical figures associated with slavery are ongoing.

In 2016, trustees for the University of Tulsa voted to remove the name of another founding member of the Tulsa Ku Klux Klan, John Rogers, from its law school

In Norman, the City Council voted in December 2017 to change the name of DeBarr Avenue. The street had been named for former University of Oklahoma professor Edwin DeBarr, who once served as Grand Dragon for the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma.

Also in 2017, business owners in the Brady Arts District voted to rename the area Tulsa Arts District. The district had been named in honor of former Klansman W. Tate Brady, who signed a charter in 1898 to incorporate Tulsa as a city. In 2013, the City Council voted to rename Brady Street to M.B. Brady Street, after a noted Civil War photographer.

The Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education voted in May to rename three elementary schools named for Confederate generals.

Earlier this year, Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education decided to rename four public schools named for Robert E. Lee; Andrew Jackson; Christopher Columbus and Jean-Pierre Chouteau, because of their ties to slavery.

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
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