It started with a headline. “The Nightmare Of Dreamland,” written by Tulsa historian/journalist Lee Roy Chapman, laid out the connections between W. Tate Brady, the Tulsa Outrage, and a Ku Klux Klan chapter responsible for the darkest era in the city’s history.
The article was published April 18, 2012, and it didn’t take long for the wheels of change to start spinning. By the fall of 2013, the street bearing Brady’s name had been (somewhat) re-named from Brady Street to M.B. Brady Street.
It no longer honored the former Klan member, but was instead named after a Civil War-era photographer with no connection to Tulsa. A blue ceremonial “Reconciliation Way” street sign sits on top of each “M.B. Brady Street” marker.
Some business owners had bucked at the idea of a brand new name — would they have to bear the costs of new signs and new advertising materials? — so the “new” name was considered a compromise.
But now, nearly four years since that contentious process played out and at a time when names and monuments across Tulsa and much of the nation are being reviewed and altered, much of downtown still bears markers with Brady’s name.
When the BOK Center opened in 2008, it quickly became the area’s top large-scale entertainment venue. But Cain’s Ballroom is still Tulsa’s most iconic concert location.
But it wasn’t always a place to watch your favorite traveling musicians. Built in the 1920s, the building first served as a garage for Tate Brady’s vehicles.
The thousands of people who attend shows at Cain’s Ballroom each year walk past stars on the sidewalk outside the venue that highlight some of the luminaries who have played there — names like Merle Haggard, Roy Clark, Bob Wills and others.
Outside the front door is a star bearing another name — Tate Brady. (Someone recently made an addition to Brady’s star, writing the word “Taint” above Brady’s first name.)
Hunter Rodgers, whose family operates Cain’s Ballroom, called the existence of Brady’s star “a complex issue, for sure,” and said he’s “not particularly in favor of the idea of removing the star.”
“The idea of a plaque of sorts out front isn’t something we’d be against, though,” Rodgers said in an email to The Frontier. “We’ll deal with it when the time comes.”
Hannibal Johnson, a Tulsa author, attorney, professor and member of the Race Riot Commission, said he was unaware of the Tate Brady star, and believed that “at a minimum” there should be some sort of clarification at the concert hall “giving a full view of who (Brady) was.”
“It seems like they would have some moral impulse to clarify who we know he is today,” Johnson said. “They of course may not have known at the time the star was placed, but they know now.”
Tulsa Arts District
Last fall the Brady Arts District business association rebranded itself to “The Tulsa Arts District,” choosing that rather nondescript moniker over options like “NoDo Arts District,” or “Boomtown Arts District.”
Yet a year later, many Tulsans still refer to the area as “The Brady” out of habit. A Google search for “Tulsa Arts District” will return a map labeled “Brady Arts District,” Yelp reviews for the best restaurants “near Brady Arts District,” and 1,500 Facebook photos under the “Brady Arts District” name.
For years the business association used a popular Facebook page under the “Brady Tulsa Arts District name” and web address. Though they eventually opened up a new “Tulsa Arts District” page, the old “Brady” page still exists and is still active, sharing news from the area while occasionally encouraging people (more than 12,000 of whom like the old “Brady” page, compared just over 1,000 who like the new page) to move to the “Tulsa Arts District” page.
The Brady Theater was built in the early 1900s and is only tangentially named after Brady. Originally called Convention Hall, it was later dubbed the Brady Theater because of its location on the corner of Brady Street and North Boulder Avenue.
However, it does have its own dark past. Just a few blocks west of the Greenwood District, the theater was used as a detention center for black Greenwood residents following the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, the deadliest racial massacre in United States history.
Today it hosts dozens of performances each year from various musicians and other performers.
What’s in a name?
Racial issues permeate every corner of America, an inescapable piece of the country’s history of slavery and racism, but Tulsa has its own very unique gruesome past.
In 1921, spurred by news headlines and an encounter between a black teenager and a white girl, white Tulsans rioted in the thriving Greenwood District. Dozens of black Tulsans were killed and many more were detained by authorities and vigilantes.
The Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, had flourished as a place for black Tulsans to live and prosper. But in 1921 that all changed, and the area was destroyed.
Even now, as the area is being rebuilt in the “Tulsa Arts District,” there are critics as the area is increasingly gentrified.
“There’s not much of the history left,” Johnson said. “But I don’t think there’s any going back. The area is growing and people want it to grow. Certainly in this community there are fans of growth. We want it to happen, but we don’t want to lose sight of who was there, and who that portion of Tulsa belonged to before it was taken away.
“The commission wants to use this history to encourage black entrepreneurship … to teach black Tulsans that there is a legacy of entrepreneurship that is bequeathed to them, that they’re not taking full advantage of.”
In just a few short years, the nation’s eyes will again turn to Greenwood, as it will be 100 years since the “Tulsa Race Riot.”
That name has come under scrutiny, as some feel it unfairly imparts the idea that it was black Tulsans who rioted, rather than white citizens who murdered dozens of people and flattened the district.
Many want the event to be known as the “Tulsa Race Massacre,” a title that certainly fits the events of that dark day. The Tulsa World recently published a story that described the paper’s recently-altered editorial stance that they would refer to the event with “race riot” in lower case, rather than “The Tulsa Race Riot.”
Johnson told The Frontier last month that, in his opinion, “there is no argument between calling it a riot or a massacre.”
“It was called what other similar incidents were in the time,” Johnson said. “The question is who named it, why did they pick that name, what transpired and what other descriptors might we use now to accurately describe it.
“It’s not about the particular term, it’s about people understanding what actually transpired and thinking their way through linguistics and terminology,” he said. “‘Race Riot’ is a term that was used during that period in our history. The foundation of the country is based in racism — that’s what slavery is. The question is, where are we today and how do we contextualize it.
Just a few miles south of downtown, a public school is facing some of the same scrutiny. Sitting in an affluent midtown neighborhood, Robert E. Lee Elementary School rebranded itself as simply “Lee Elementary School” last April after months of turmoil. Cries for a new name came last year after white nationalists rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia, (a riot organized, in part, by a Claremore man,) and a female protestor was killed.
The names of other local schools came under scrutiny as well.
Columbus Elementary, named for Christopher Columbus, was renamed Dolores Huerta Elementary after the Mexican-American civil rights activist. Chouteau Elementary, named after slave-owner Jean Pierre Chouteau, was named Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy after the now-deceased local basketball star and musician.
However, Lee’s name has been harder to shake. The school board has yet to make a final decision, but the potential choices appear to be Council Oak, Woody Guthrie, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Luper, and Maple Ridge.