TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Tulsa’s city leaders are divided over whether to rename a popular downtown street named for a businessman who was in the Ku Klux Klan, but some residents worry a drawn-out fight could send the message that the city still embraces intolerance.
After a three-hours-plus public hearing Thursday night on changing the name of Brady Street, the City Council arrived at an informal 4-4 tie on the issue. The ninth council member, Phil Lakin, was absent Thursday and could break the tie when at next week’s official vote. Lakin did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday, and it’s unclear which way he will vote.
Regardless, the debate revealed divisions on the council.
Supporters warned that if city leaders decide to keep the name, it would only prove what some blacks believe now about the city of 400,000: There is still a white Tulsa and a black Tulsa.
“If it doesn’t pass, we will continue to have a need for a much better education process about the role of the KKK in Tulsa historically and the impact it has had on our black friends and neighbors in this community,” said Councilor G.T. Bynum, who supports the name change. “Black people in Tulsa have had a very difficult time in Tulsa over the last 100 years.”
Wyatt Tate Brady, the street’s namesake, was a shoe salesman who became a prominent Tulsa businessman. He signed the city’s incorporation papers, started a newspaper and pumped his wealth into promoting Tulsa to the rest of the country.
But Brady, the son of a Confederate veteran, was also a member of the Klan. New questions arose after a magazine article looked at whether he was involved in the most notorious event in Tulsa history: a 1921 race riot that left some 300 black residents dead.
Today, Brady Street cuts through the heart of the Brady Arts District, a glitzy downtown area that represents arguably the most successful redevelopment project the city has ever pursued. Boarded-up warehouses, overgrown lots and blight have been replaced with trendy bistros, a cigar bar and a museum and park honoring Dust Bowl music legend Woody Guthrie.
Supporters have been lobbying for the name change since 2011, when an article in the literary magazine This Land said Brady created an environment of racism that led to the 1921 riot that decimated a thriving district that historians have called Black Wall Street.
The district is in the city’s downtown, and some say that beyond that new redevelopment, the city isn’t committed to investing in the north side, which is home to many black residents and pocked with blight and vacant lots.
“If we don’t change this name, tell me what would be a good step in changing this part of town?” resident Carlos Moreno told council members Thursday. “Convince me. I’m listening.”
Those who want to leave the name alone include some of the Brady district’s business owners. They say a name change could lead to a revisionist look at other notable residents who have parks, buildings and streets named after them.
Some said keeping the name shows people that learning from the past — not scrubbing it — is the better option. Some suggested placing signage or a plaque in the district if the council votes to keep the name to tell visitors who Brady was and the infamous things he did.
“If erasing the memories of the riot is your intention, then you may be on your way to a time when it is forgotten,” said Robert Fleischman, president of the Brady Arts District Business Association.
But others question why the city would keep a street name linked to the oppression of blacks.
Resident James L. Johnson Sr. noted that some business owners have already made changes, because they understood that putting the Brady name on their businesses would offend people who know about Brady’s past.
“Wyatt Tate Brady is still a hero to (the city),” Johnson said. “White supremacy and racism is alive and well in this city, whether they like to admit it or not.”