In Memphis, about 63 percent of the population is African-American, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Compared to other cities of a similar size, it's considered one of the poorest.
And so while the long shadow of racial injustice fueled an effort there to rename three city parks previously named after Confederate leaders, economics also played a role, according to Memphis observer and author Wanda Rushing.
"I think it's hard to know what causes success," said Rushing, noting that a similar drive a few years earlier failed to result in names being changed. "I think that part of the issue is the political sensitivity of the kinds of economic issues we face in Memphis, and the fact that we have people who are recruiting business investments, and there might be a perception by potential investors that there's racial conflict."
The point is well illustrated in one of the new park names. A park named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate war hero and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, in February became at least temporarily Health Sciences Park, named after a developing bioscience corridor nearby.
Whatever the reasons for change in Memphis, proponents of change in Tulsa took notice of events in that city.
COURTESY OF MEMPHIS CITY COUNCIL
"It had a lot of influence, because it showed to us what can be done, what the city can do together, and they changed three huge parks, historical parks, and we feel if they can come together and do this, then we can, too," said Kristi Williams, a member of the Coalition for Social Justice, the group that's been pushing the Tulsa City Council for change.
In Tulsa, it's one of the city's founders, W. Tate Brady, whose name and rightful legacy are up for debate. His reputation may have been damaged beyond repair following research in recent years uncovering close ties to the Ku Klux Klan and links to a direct role in the Tulsa Race Riot.
His name remains in everyday use in Tulsa -- the city has Brady Street, the Brady Arts District and the Brady Heights neighborhood -- and that's something the coalition hopes to change.
"We feel that as long as the name is there, we're honoring him," Williams said.
She also noted research done showing Brady was an appointed member of the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange Commission, which played an active role in preventing growth of the African-American community in Tulsa after the violence against blacks in the riot.
"When the businesses burned and homes burned, he tried so hard to prevent them from building back," Williams said.
Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has written a book about the Tulsa Race Riot. While he was quick to say he's not an expert on Tate Brady, he found no flaw with recent reporting in This Land Press of Brady's association with the riot.
"It seems as though the evidence there makes it hard to ignore his use of violence," Brophy said, also mentioning evidence of Brady's hostility towards labor and involvement in efforts to push African-Americans away from Tulsa.
Williams said the coalition's other major goal is to have the Oklahoma Historical Society revise its biography of Brady to include evidence of his wrongdoings.
"We want the information available in school books," Williams said.
City councilors thus far have mainly voiced support for studying a street name change, with plans to create a citizens committee to report back any repercussions of making such a change. The Brady Arts District evolved from a marketing effort of local business owners. So far, the limited public comments made by that group have been that they named themselves after Brady Street; Councilor Blake Ewing, who represents the area that includes the district, said in a public meeting that the group is open to the idea of change.
Public debate likely will soon be held beyond city hall. Sheryl Lovelady, a member of the board of directors for the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, said the center expects to host a public forum before the end of this summer on the topic.
"We see, one, a great opportunity for education, to educate Tulsans about their past identity and also to get their input on what that identity should be moving forward," Lovelady said. "If you look at this issue, it's not just about the name on an arts and entertainment district, it really is a larger issue about Tulsa's identity as a city."
Lovelady said the center isn't choosing a position on whether the name should be changed. "We may have a position after the dialogue, but we want that process to take place," she said.
Brophy, who's also written about the renaming of monuments, said a building on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin was renamed in 2010 after controversy over a historical figure's ties to the Ku Klux Klan. At Vanderbilt University, an effort about 10 years ago to change the name of a central campus building known as Confederate Memorial Hall was slowed because of a lawsuit filed by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In general, Brophy said there aren't a large number of examples in recent years of renaming to take away an honor from a historical figure.
"There have been fewer of those of late than I might have otherwise expected," Brophy said, instead noting the more common occurrence is to change names to honor someone -- as Tulsa did when the council voted in 2011 to change N. Cincinnati Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
But the Memphis example has proven to be a catalyst of sorts. Williams said the coalition has been in contact with Myron Lowery, a city councilman in Memphis, reaching out to leaders in that city before the group spoke to the Tulsa City Council.
"I was really shocked that he reached back, and he reached back to us and he really gave us some great advice on how to do it together as a city," Williams said.
Lowery, in an email, described how there were "heated arguments throughout the city" and different proposals for changing park names. He noted that Health Sciences Park is only a temporary name, with a committee having recommended a permanent name of Civil War Memorial Park. So far, no final decision has been made.
"The efforts in Tulsa and Memphis are similar," Lowery wrote. "City leaders should always listen to the community before making controversial decisions. Everyone will not be happy, but this is the democratic process."
Rushing, a University of Memphis sociology professor, was not involved in advocacy for changing the name of parks in that city. She said she thought the city acted in part because state legislators had proposed a law banning the renaming of historical parks; Lowery also mentioned this as a factor in the action taken this year. Rushing said another catalyst in Memphis was a large sign placed in the park -- without city authorization -- by a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
There has been far less drama in Tulsa about changing the name, at least thus far. Brophy said that despite relatively few examples of stripping away names elsewhere, such movements sometimes take place rapidly.
"It's been that way for a long time, then a movement gets afoot and people decide it's time for a change. It's always interesting to me how quickly, once a movement gets going, how things change," he said.
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