The attorney smelled good.
Damie Roland remembered certain things about her son’s court-appointed attorney, Washington Elias Hudson, known around town simply as “Wash.” The squeaky voiced, bowtie-wearing Hudson sported prominent ears and a neatly trimmed mustache, providing fodder for numerous cartoon caricatures. He had an intense look, one that the Rolands might have found reassuring.
Dick Roland was a young black man who was questionably accused of assault with intent to rape a white 17-year-old, Sarah Page. Yellow newspapermen used Roland’s arrest in their reporting, which many argue helped provoke the deadly Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Much of Tulsa seemed anxious to get ahold of Roland.
A prominent Vanderbilt-trained attorney and a successful state politician, Hudson was in many respects the ideal lawyer for Roland. With one glaring exception.
Wash Hudson was the leader of Oklahoma’s Ku Klux Klan.
Hudson’s father served as a Cyclops in the Tennessee Klan following the Civil War. Wash saw Tulsa as a lawless city, and relished the chance to lead the Klan as an opportunity to fight crime.
“The law had broken down completely,” Hudson recalled in a 1960 article in The Tulsa Tribune. “Women were raped on the streets. Men were robbed. We cleaned things up.”
Dick Roland disappeared. Damie, Dick’s adoptive mother, claims Sheriff McCollough told her that officers took him to friends of Sarah Page’s in Kansas City – to keep him safe from a lynch mob. But there are few traces of his existence afterwards. With some blacks infuriated with him, Dick’s time in Tulsa was over, while the Klan gained momentum.
Wash Hudson decided to do the unthinkable, despite the racial tension. Instead of backing away from the Klan, he, along with several important Tulsans, decided to make it official.
All five of the white trustees of the Tulsa Benevolent Association (TBA) were pillars of the city: Wash E. Hudson (chairman), John Rogers (secretary), C. W. Benedict, Wm. “Shelly” Rogers and Alf G. Heggem (trustees).
On Jan. 5, 1922, they signed the articles of incorporation for the Tulsa Benevolent Association, which officially established the Ku Klux Klan as a legal organization in the state of Oklahoma. The Tulsa KKK was born a mere six months after the Tulsa Race Riot.
But who, precisely, were the fathers of Tulsa’s Klan? Wash Hudson, Roland’s attorney, served as a state legislator and founder of the Tulsa Law School, while John Rogers, a future dean of the University of Tulsa College of Law, served as general counsel for McMan Oil company.
Heggem was a well-respected mechanical engineer, Benedict was a banker and Shelley Rogers was a private attorney. Three of the men worked in the First National Bank building in downtown Tulsa.
The first office of the Tulsa Benevolent Association was listed as the second floor of The Mayo Building at 420 S. Main. But such a location would not suffice for such a popular organization. Overwhelmed with a tsunami of new initiates following the riot, the Klan founders moved to secure a Klan Klubhouse.
They bought Centenary Methodist-Episcopal Church located on the edge of the riot scene, but even it could not contain the rapidly growing membership.
In 1923, they erected a 3,000-seat, white, plaster behemoth for its meetings. Locals called it “Be-No Hall,” as in “Be No Niggers, Jews, Catholics or Immigrants.” The monolith of menace at 501 N. Main stood above the ashes of the former dwellings of race riot survivors and overlooked the tents that had replaced their homes.
‘Nightriders’ target Greenwood
The Tulsa Benevolent Association wasn’t the only extremist group in town; vigilante squads became authorized law enforcement. Organized under the supervision of the Tulsa County sheriff and Klan member, W. M. McCollough, the Tulsa Law Enforcement Club was established on a cold, December 1921 night during a mass meeting of conservative citizens at the First Baptist Church.
The club selected five men, including TBA trustees John Rogers and Alf Heggem, to wage war with the criminal community and eradicate the bordellos, “Choc” beer joints and dope dens of Tulsa County. This commission and their representatives along with County Attorney William Seaver and several justices crafted guidelines that produced a cleanup squad of nightriders, whose responsibility was to systematically purge the immoral element of Tulsa — much of which they believed was located in Greenwood.
Beno Hall, according to Tulsa historian David Breed, “was the launching point of midnight parades, and they would bring crosses and burn them along the boundaries of the Greenwood district.” Twenty-three Tulsa KKK Knights were charged with civic rioting and assaults as nightriders with their own brand of moral cleansing.
Downtown Tulsa parades of sign-toting Klansmen Klanswomen and Klan Juniors marched in their regalia. According to a Tulsa police history, 1,741 Klan members in full regalia marched through downtown on April 1, 1922. And the empire’s presence in state and local politics was undeniable.
Three of five Tulsa County’s State Representatives in 1923 were admitted Klansmen. Political meetings at Beno yielded a slate of candidates that won the local municipal elections in 1924. Several association founders were instrumental in the legal community.
In addition to founding a civic club, Wash Hudson yearned for a law school in Tulsa. Together with four other attorneys that included his son, Hudson was granted a state charter in 1923 to open the Tulsa Law School, a free standing school with no educational institution affiliation.
Hudson became the first dean and taught those first years in the basement of Central High School. For 20 years, Wash loaned his name to the school but he sought a collegiate relationship for the law school. Rogers and Hudson found another common, civic bond.
While serving on University of Tulsa Board of Trustees and chair of its Committee on Faculty and Curriculum, Rogers squired the acquisition of Hudson’s law school into the university family, creating the University of Tulsa College of Law in 1943.
E. E. Hanson ran the school from his Mayo Building office while Rogers served as a strong-handed overseer. Bruce Peterson, once a professor and dean of the law school, maintained that, “You did not sneeze without Mr. Rogers’ permission.”
John Rogers became the official dean of the TU law school in 1949. Several years later, a racial episode surfaced when Kenneth Dones, a black man who was the son-in-law of Edwin Goodwin, publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle newspaper, applied for admission. Rogers did not admit him, but, rather, allowed him to audit the first year if he promised to transfer to another law school the next year. Dones completed his law degree at Washburn University.
Oklahoma Eagle Publisher Goodwin applied successfully in 1958 to the TU College of Law, gaining admittance without a hint of discrimination. The Klan, by then, had lost its clout.
What would drive a man like Rogers to help establish the Tulsa Benevolent Association? He was clearly a joiner. Rogers was instrumental in the formation of the Oklahoma American Legion and the Tulsa YMCA, served as Chamber of Commerce president in 1936, was a University of Oklahoma regent and held multiple University of Tulsa positions while creating the Tulsa Council of Churches.
Outside of his wife and son, the First Christian Church in Tulsa and its national organization were the focal points of his life. Along with other TBA trustees, his contributions to the Tulsa community are unquestioned and significant.
Governor decried ‘that whipping crowd’
While Rogers’ membership in the Klan was ill-chosen and short-lived, Wash Hudson’s involvement was more complicated. Throughout his tenure as a Democrat in the Oklahoma State House of Representatives 1915-1917 and Senate 1923-1927, Hudson was open regarding his Klan affiliation.
During his first year as a senator, Hudson became the majority (Democratic) floor leader who prepared and presented a successful impeachment charge against Gov. Jack Walton, a known opponent of the Invisible Empire. Walton referred to the Klan as “that whipping crowd,” while offering “a pardon in advance if you burst right into them with a double-barreled shot gun.” The November 1923 regular meeting at the recently dedicated Beno Hall celebrated the ouster of “Jazz Band Jack” Walton.
In 1924, a Klansman from the East speaking at Beno Hall promoted a stand against Catholics, Jews and Negroes. This rhetoric sharply contrasted with the assurance given by a national Klansman, who recruited Hudson several years earlier, that the Klan oath had nothing religious about it.
Hudson retorted with his own fiery speech and quit the organization, nearly causing uproar. He claimed the entire Klan organization was under the direction of the national Republican committee. Subsequently, the Grand Dragon of the Oklahoma Klan, N.C. Jewett, banished Hudson. After a change in the leadership of the Oklahoma Realm, Wash, along with his son Robert D. Hudson, rejoined the Tulsa Klavern although the organization was in a gradual decline and his friend John Rogers was no longer on the rolls.
And what became of the other three founders of the Tulsa Benevolent Association?
Klan member and mechanical engineer Alf G. Heggem was one of the original directors of the International Petroleum Exposition that brought thousands of oil-related professionals to Tulsa. The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce magazine, Tulsa Spirit, described Alf as an “apostle with keen business sense.”
Heggem supported the Trinity Episcopal Church, served as the chamber’s president in 1927 and belonged to Rotary and assorted Masonic rites. The Norwegian descendent was issued numerous patents for his gas preservation inventions and made a fortune primarily from the Cushing oil field bonanza rather than lawyering like the other TBA founders.
With offices in the First National Bank Building, attorney Wm. Shelley Rogers lead the Tulsa Klavern as the Exalted Cyclops at the time of the Benevolent Association’s creation, succeeding Wash as the corporation’s chairman. Living on 15th Street just shy of Utica, across from the current location of Panera Bread, Shelley orchestrated the activities of the Junior KKK for teenage boys, the Khoral Klub and the Klan’s women’s auxiliary. He also organized dances and ice cream socials held in Beno Hall.
Serving years as a vice president of the First National Bank in Tulsa, Klansman Channing W. Benedict and his wife headed south by 1940, becoming the manager of a camp in Harris, Texas and the last manager of the Chief Motel in Houston.
While Benedict was content to only practice law in Tulsa, Wash Hudson and John Rogers shared much larger aspirations. They ran against each other for the Oklahoma State Senate in 1922. With the strong, Democratic, political clout of the Klan behind Hudson, the Republican Rogers was soundly defeated, later joking he had the Klan to thank for keeping him out of politics. Rogers removed himself from the Klavern, while the diminutive Hudson continued marching to the Klan Klubhouse on North Main until the bitter end.
By 1925, the Tulsa Benevolent Association ceased to exist. The departure of Wash and other prominent Knights who objected to the Klan pressuring members to change their party affiliation to Republican deflated the empire’s stature. Internal politics became a death knell for the Tulsa Klan.
With a withering membership and decline in political panache, Beno Hall became insolvent by 1929, becoming property of the sheriff of Tulsa County. Steve Pringle, an old-time-religion radio personality and evangelist at the Evangelistic Temple of the First Pentecostal (Baptist) Church, bought the sheriff deed to the infamous Beno Hall property, where a spirited, young preacher from Enid, Oral Roberts, joined the ministry, preaching his first tent revival alongside the temple at the base of Standpipe hill.
The former Tulsa Benevolent Association building became social blight in the early 1970s, providing space for entrepreneurs of the flesh and drug trade. Purchased by the Oklahoma Highway Department for freeway right-of-way, the building was demolished, leaving a vacant lot today where the former Klan and its leaders once terrorized the city.
Tulsa’s hidden history explored by local author
Steve Gerkin, a Tulsa-based freelance writer, has been published over two dozen times and his first of three books, Hidden History of Tulsa, was published by History Press in 2014.
His work has appeared in La Semana, The Battle Lake Review, Gastronome and This Land. His essays for This Land Press, Tulsa-based literary magazine, established him as a contributing editor.
Gerkin is a certified French wine scholar, a specialist of wine with several sommelier certifications and a university-level wine educator. Retired from 36 years in dentistry, Steve and his wife, Sue, live in Tulsa.
For more information about Hidden History of Tulsa, visit the book’s Facebook page.