The University of Tulsa’s Board of Trustees will vote Wednesday on a recommendation to remove the name of law school founder John Rogers due to his role in establishing the Ku Klux Klan in Tulsa, the Frontier has learned.
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.
The university Board of Trustees’ executive committee has already voted to recommend to the full board that Rogers’ name be removed, an action which the university administration supports, sources told The Frontier. The Board of Trustees held a telephone conference to discuss the matter last week and is expected to vote on the removal recommendation Wednesday.
In an email to The Frontier, TU spokeswoman Mona Chamberlin said: “After intensive study and thoughtful deliberation, The University of Tulsa administration has made a recommendation to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees. This recommendation has been taken under consideration and will be discussed at the next regularly scheduled meeting of the board on May 4.
“Until the board has had an opportunity to review the recommendation, there will be no further comment from the university.”
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 an interview with The Frontier, Gerkin said he came across the incorporation records during his research for the book.
“I looked through the (Tulsa) phone book for that year. He was the only John Rogers.”
Despite the Klan’s violent, racist activities, many well-known people — politicians, attorneys, bankers and businessmen — were members at the time.
“He (Rogers) was in the Klan, like a lot of people were,” Gerkin said.
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.
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 will likely abstain from the vote but said she believes a majority of the board will vote to remove Rogers’ name from the law school.
“The train is moving out of the station on this issue and it’s breaking my heart.”
She said the proposed action “focused on two years of a man’s life and … not the totality of what he did.”
Bell said 1922 “was a crisis year for him and he decided to redirect his life.”
“He dropped out of the Klan almost as soon as he formed it. He was not a member when the Beno building was built. He objected to the Klan because of its focus on violence.”
The history of the Beno building, an auditorium used as the Klan’s headquarters, was detailed in a 2011 story Gerkin wrote in This Land Magazine: “Beno Hall: Tulsa’s Den of Terror.”
Bell compared the issue to the decision to remove Andrew Jackson, the country’s seventh president and a slave owner, from the front of the $20 bill.
“Apparently once tainted, always tainted. … It’s a very difficult issue.”
If TU removes Rogers’ name from the law school, it’s unclear what impact, if any, the action would have financially.
Bell is an individual trustee of several of the 12 charitable trusts established by James A. Chapman and his relatives, collectively known as the Chapman Charitable Trusts. The university is a beneficiary of four of the Chapman trusts.
Bell said John Chapman’s widow made a large gift to the law school “with the specific request that it be named after her longtime friend and attorney,” John Rogers.
When asked whether removing Rogers’ name from the law school could jeopardize funding for TU, Bell answered, “No comment.”
However, sources told The Frontier that if approved, the change is expected to have minimal, if any, financial impact on TU.
The terms of the Chapman trusts require a certain amount of funding to be donated to TU. Bank of Oklahoma, as the corporate trustee, would have a role in decisions about future gifts to TU from the trusts.
Records show five Chapman family trusts gave a combined $24.9 million to TU in 2014, the latest year for which records are available. Those trusts have a combined $1.4 billion in assets and contributed about $60 million that year to TU and other non-profit organizations.
A nationwide issue
Nationally, more than 70 higher education institutions have faced similar issues in recent years, including other colleges in Oklahoma.
At Oklahoma State University, buildings named after William H. Murray, a bigot and former Oklahoma governor, have been the subject of controversies.
University faculty members considered pushing for a name change when renovations began on Murray Hall in 2007, but ultimately, faculty didn’t make a formal proposal to change the name, OSU spokesman Gary Shutt wrote in an email. The university’s Facilities Planning and Space Utilization Committee also discussed a name change during renovations, but voted to not recommend a change, he explained.
The university’s Student Government Association, editorial board of the campus newspaper and the College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Council all called for the building to be renamed while renovation was underway.
A request for a building name change must be presented to the university’s FPSU Committee. From there, it is sent to OSU’s president for consideration, and then presented to the Board of Regents for final approval, according to the university’s naming policy.
A formal request has never been submitted to the committee for a name change, Shutt said in an email.
A plaque in the basement of Murray Hall explains the reasoning behind leaving the name and mentions Murray’s racism and anti-Semitism, as well as his value for higher education and influence on Oklahoma’s history. The plaque’s text ends with: “For now, the name remains.”
Across the nation, racial tension and protests are emerging on college campuses.
On Nov. 9, 2015, the president of the University of Missouri resigned after several weeks of protests over racial tensions.
In March 2015, a group of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members from the University of Oklahoma led a racist chant on a bus. The chapter in Norman was immediately shut down and two students seen participating in the chant dropped out of the university.
Now, universities are contemplating how to address their histories and ties with slavery.
In 1838, Georgetown University sold 272 slaves, which included men, women and children, to plantations in Louisiana. The money was used to keep Georgetown University afloat.
Now, the university is in the midst of a project to find descendants of the enslaved people.
The university also renamed two buildings to Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall, which were originally named after two college officials involved in the sale.
In 2003, Brown University created a Steering Committee on Slavery and Racism, which was tasked with university’s relationship to slavery and the slave trade. The committee was also assigned to create programs to help the community reflect on its history.