For the second time in five years, the city council of Tulsa, Oklahoma is debating renaming a street that originally honored city founder and KKK member W. Tate Brady. Technically, the council changed the name in 2013, the first time it took up the issue. Thanks to a compromise then, Brady Street remained Brady Street, but thereafter it was supposed to honor famed photographer Matthew Brady — who had no connection to the city — as a replacement for Tate Brady. That the current discussion focuses again on the latter Brady’s character demonstrates that the street name continues to be a memorial to his legacy.
This is Tulsa’s version of the monument debate occurring in various municipalities around the South. There are no statues honoring Confederate leaders here. That’s largely because, in Oklahoma, the rebels were Native Americans, and white Tulsans who wanted to venerate the Confederacy in the Jim Crow era wouldn’t erect a monument to Stand Watie, a Cherokee and General in the CSA over the forces in Indian Territory. In lieu of monuments then, heroization took a more ethereal form: the proliferation of hagiographic societies. Tate Brady and his peers — many of whom came from Texas, Arkansas, and other slave states — founded local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to celebrate their white fathers.
Brady was central to luring the 1918 national reunion of Confederate veterans to Tulsa. He bragged to a state meeting in 1916 about pitching to the national reunion organizers. He claimed one of them asked him, “Gentlemen, are you going to make us and our folks ride with and stop at the same hotel as the n—-rs?” Brady reported that he was “proud to tell them that nothing of the sort would happen if they would come to Oklahoma.” He noted that the state legislature had already enacted Jim Crow laws that “puts the n—-r where he belongs,” segregating “him so that he need not be a stench in the nostrils of the white people of our community.” When held, the Tulsa reunion’s guest of honor was Nathan Bedford Forrest II, Grand Dragon of the KKK in Georgia.
Many of the Sons of Confederate Veterans joined the KKK, including Brady. The violence associated with Klan activities would hardly trouble the city leader. He once assaulted a fellow businessman in public. On another occasion, he participated in the torture of labor organizers, along with the local sheriff. Victims reported that Brady personally applied tar and feathers to their wounds after they had been whipped. Law enforcement officers and other city leaders didn’t hold Brady accountable for these violent acts. His behavior was tolerated because that was acceptable in the city’s culture.
By his own admission, Brady was a Klan member in 1921, when, as a night watchman, he presided over the murder of black citizens and destruction of homes and businesses during the Tulsa Race Riot. It was not the case that Brady used his leadership position to help squelch the massacre or rescue the victims of white rioters. He was not a crusader for justice, the rule of law, or peace — during the riot or its aftermath. Consistently over his lifetime, he promoted violence and intimidation in the community, contributing to a brutal bigoted culture which lingers even as the city approaches the centennial of the massacre.
Tellingly, the street that bears Brady’s name runs just along the edge of the boundaries of the old predominately black-owned neighborhood in a commercial district that thrives today as a downtown playground for white Tulsans. Meanwhile, the black community has never regained its financial standing. Urban redevelopment has not resulted in racial diversification in the district — or in obscuring the legacy of the Brady name. Hence the call once again to reassess the propriety of the keeping it on a street sign.
At a recent hearing where city leaders renewed the name change debate, Councilor Karen O’Brien defended Brady, saying people disregard the good things he did, focusing instead on his connection to the KKK. She compared this to students fixating on a math teacher’s error, despite other correct work. Obviously, Brady did more than commit a small miscalculation in promoting violence and white supremacy in Tulsa — just as white Tulsans have more than simply perpetuated divisions in the community in failing to remove Brady’s name from a place of honor all this time.
Four years after the race riot, Brady shot himself in the head at his kitchen table. The violence he embraced claimed even him in the end. This was the legacy he left: an oppressive social order kept in place through vicious means. Tulsa, a city plagued by violence and disturbing disparities of opportunity for minority groups yet today, still bears the marks of Brady’s character, along with his name. Nothing short of a cultural shift will lift the name and the legacy of brutality from Tulsa, and of that change, the city council must give a sign.