John Rogers’ good works later in life could not outlive an ugly earlier chapter in which he founded a KKK group and failed to hold accountable those who started Tulsa’s race riot.
The University of Tulsa Board of Trustees voted Wednesday to remove Rogers’ name from the building that houses the university’s law school, where it had remained for more than four decades.
During a closed-door meeting that lasted several hours, the board discussed a recommendation from TU’s administration to remove Rogers’ name from the law school building due to his past involvement in the Tulsa Benevolent Association.
Historians and even Rogers’ supporters say the group was a front for the Ku Klux Klan. But perhaps more concerning to some trustees was Rogers’ lack of action when the city’s mayor put him in charge of investigating Tulsa’s bloody 1921 race riot, in which thousands of black Tulsans lost lives, homes or both.
In an email to students and faculty, TU President Steadman Upham stated: “This action comes after nearly one year of research and substantive discussion and is directly reflective of the core values of TU’s mission: excellence in scholarship, dedication to free inquiry, integrity of character and commitment to humanity.”
His email also said that the action “does not alter or attempt to rewrite history, rather it represents the best efforts to objectively examine the life of John Rogers in its entirety.”
“The framework of these discussions allowed for thorough dialogue and prevented a rush to judgment. A plaque memorializing the life of John Rogers, including his many significant and long-lasting contributions to The University of Tulsa, will be installed at the primary entrances to the College of Law building. There have been no discussions regarding naming this building for any other person.”
A group of students and alumni sent an online petition with more than 200 signatures so far to the university asking that Rogers’ name be replaced with the name of a former TU professor who specialized in tribal law.
“Renaming the Law School in honor of the recently deceased faculty member G. William Rice would send a very positive message to Indian Country and the rest of the nation regarding Tulsa’s position amongst law schools,” states the petition on change.org
“Bill was a mentor to many, and a hero to even more. This is an very fitting and appropriate manner to honor his memory and his contribution to the University. His life’s work as a champion of advocacy, justice and scholarship speaks for itself. He is far more worthy than someone who buys the honor with an endowment.”
The petition asks that the entire law school be named after Rice but actually, it’s the building that houses the law school that bears Rogers’ name. The university has made no comment on whether the law school building will be named after anyone else or whether that will be considered in the future.
The board held its last regularly scheduled meeting of the academic year Wednesday and isn’t set to meet again until the fall.
The petition was started by Fred E. Knowles Jr., a 2013 graduate who — according to TU’s Facebook page — was one of the first people to attain TU’s new master’s of jurisprudence in Indian law.
Rogers began serving on the TU Board of Trustees from 1926 to 1966. In 1943, Rogers was involved with acquiring the assets of the independent Tulsa Law School, and legal education was added to TU’s offerings.
Rogers, a prominent Tulsa attorney who died in 1977, helped affiliate the freestanding Tulsa Law School with TU in 1943 and was the new law school’s first dean. Rogers was also a TU trustee, founder of the Rogers and Bell law firm in Tulsa and an attorney for Tulsa philanthropist James A. Chapman.
The university became officially aware of Rogers’ involvement in the Klan after hiring an attorney to review all programs and buildings named after individuals. The review comes at a time when universities across the country are under pressure to remove names of founders and benefactors who owned slaves, espoused racist ideologies or belonged to groups that did so.
Records show that Rogers was one of five men who incorporated the Tulsa Benevolent Association on Jan. 5, 1922, six months after the 1921 Tulsa race riot. The association was essentially a front for the Klan. (Others listed on the incorporation papers were Wash E. Hudson; C. W. Benedict; W.M. “Shelly” Rogers; and Alf G. Heggem.)
Incorporating the Tulsa Benevolent Association “officially established the Ku Klux Klan as a legal organization in the state of Oklahoma,” according to “Hidden History of Tulsa,” a book published in 2014 by author Steve Gerkin.
The book calls Rogers’ membership in the Klan “ill chosen and short-lived” and says that by 1924, “Rogers was no longer on the KKK rolls.”
In addition to his Klan membership, Rogers was a member of other organizations with goals similar to those of the KKK.
In 1919, Rogers was a leader in the local chapter of the American Legion, which had a history of anti-immigrant stances. Following the race riot, he was appointed to the Tulsa Law Enforcement Club, a group organized by citizens to deputize “nightriders” to clean up lawlessness on the streets.
Tulsa’s then-mayor also appointed Rogers to head up an investigation into the causes of the Tulsa Race Riot. No official report was issued or perpetrators held accountable under Rogers’ leadership.
However, Rogers would go on to help integrate TU, lead an interfaith group that remains active today and was one of a select group of civic leaders who welcomed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he arrived for his only Tulsa visit.
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, told NewsOn6 that Rogers “made a huge impact on his community of Tulsa and the entire state in the world of his church community. So this is one of our leading citizens in all of Oklahoma history.”
Blackburn said the urge to remove names of buildings in such cases should be treated with caution.
“If we deny what it was like then, how can deal with that today? And to reach out with reconciliation and a greater understanding.”
Sharon Bell, managing partner of the Rogers and Bell law firm and a TU trustee, told The Frontier she knew Rogers as “an incredible civic leader who put his heart and soul into making Tulsa a better place.”
Bell’s father, William H. Bell, joined the Tulsa law firm Rogers started with his brother that was renamed Rogers and Bell in 1966, according to the company’s website.
Rogers was a veteran of World War I and served for about a decade without pay as the law school’s first dean.
“During that process he got the law school accredited. He integrated the law school without any fuss,” she said.
Bell said she planned to abstain from the vote but understood the outcome was likely.
“The train is moving out of the station on this issue and it’s breaking my heart.”
Some students at TU appeared to welcome the news.
Hunter Siex, a law student at TU, told NewsOn6: “Although there is history behind the school being named that, moving forward, it’s going to deter people and, you know, nobody remembers Hitler for being an artist.
“You don’t want somebody who’s affiliated with this kind of bigotry and hatred representing your school and I definitely don’t want that representing me trying to move forward and get a job after this.”