Local screen printer Lee Roy Chapman issues this disclaimer before he begins speaking about his recently launched effort to have the Brady Arts District renamed the Bob Wills Arts District.
"I'm not claiming to be a spokesman for anybody on the north side," he said. "I'm just throwing an idea out there to see how the public responds."
In May, Chapman went public with his effort, which he has dubbed the Bob Wills Revolt, through a Facebook page and a new Web site, www.thebobwillsrevolt.com, which was expected to be operating earlier this week. Chapman said he was inspired to do something by all the recent activity in the district, which soon will be the home to a new ballpark, ONEOK Field, and the planned Oklahoma Pop, an offshoot of the state History Center that will focus on the state's contributions to popular culture. The district is also home to the legendary Cain's Ballroom, where Wills achieved fame as the "King of Western Swing."
"The Bob Wills Arts District would be an international draw," he said. "That's a great brand for that area. When he wrote 'Take Me Back to Tulsa,' he wrote, 'Would I like to go to Tulsa?/Boy I sure would/Well, let me off at Archer, and I'll walk down to Greenwood.'"
Chapman notes that stanza includes no mention of Brady Street or the Brady District, a name that evolved only in recent years. Chapman believes Wills--who crossed racial and cultural boundaries to create a unique and wildly popular musical form that was a hybrid of jazz and country--is a much more fitting representative of the area than the man for whom it has come to be known, Tate Brady.
Brady--one of the original incorporators of Tulsa after moving here from Missouri in 1890 to open a mercantile store--eventually built the Hotel Brady, a favored gathering spot of oil men and Democratic politicians, according to the state Historical Society. He married a prominent Cherokee woman and later was adopted into the nation, becoming one of its strongest advocates in Washington, D.C.
But Chapman sees a much darker side to Brady's personality, one that isn't often acknowledged in discussions of his role as one of the city's early boosters. Chapman charges that Brady led a land grab in the Greenwood area in the aftermath of the 1921 race riot, supported segregation as a leader of the state Democratic Party during the Constitutional Convention and served as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Brady's personal history has been debated in Tulsa for years, with his supporters arguing that his activities on behalf of the Sons of the Confederacy and that his home, modeled after that of famed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, were merely symbols of his loyalty to his father, a Confederate soldier during the Civil War.
The late Tim Lannom, who purchased and restored the Brady Mansion several years ago, tried to debunk the claim of Brady's alleged KKK membership in a letter to the Tulsa World published Sept. 23, 2001.
"Extensive research involving the Internet, Tulsa Historical Society, TU McFarland Library's special collections, the Oklahoma Eagle and Brady descendants shows no evidence of any kind to support such claims," he wrote.
A 2005 document produced by the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service seems to back Chapman's view. Titled the "Final 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconnaissance Survey"--described as "a fact-finding effort based on readily available information ... used primarily to determine whether a site possesses national significance"--the document delves into Brady's history at length on page 117, flatly describing him as a member of the KKK. It also claims that while serving as vice chairman of the city's reconstruction committee after the riot, he led the effort to push African-Americans from their lands and redevelop the burned-out Greenwood area for light industrial purposes by sponsoring an ordinance that would have prevented blacks from rebuilding their homes and businesses.
On at least one occasion, Brady apparently resorted to violence to make a point. In his book "Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921," author Scott Ellsworth cites a Nov. 7, 1917, Tulsa World article reporting an incident in which Brady is alleged to have assaulted E.L. Fox, owner of a building in which an Industrial Workers of the World hall was located, after an argument.
Chapman said Wills, on the other hand, was anything but a divisive figure and remains one of the most popular and well-known people in the history of the city.
"It just makes sense," he said of the idea of naming the district after Wills.
"He was melding jazz and country. He was Afro-centric in his influence, and that came from growing up working in the fields next to blacks. He once rode a mule 80 miles to see Bessie Smith play. If you're looking to brand an area, Bob's the way to go."
Chapman said last week his Bob Wills Revolt Facebook page had attracted 320 members and was growing rapidly, having also drawn the support of numerous small business owners and arts groups. If his movement continues to show life, he said he'll ramp up his efforts to bring the proposed name change to the attention of city officials.
"We'll get some petitions going, and I'll find out through the City Council how to make it official," he said.
The effort has been strictly a guerilla effort so far, he said.
"I have not spoken to anybody on the council, but I did talk to a city planner who told me it would be a good idea to take it to the streets," Chapman said, adding that a local developer told him he didn't think the idea would fly if it came from a "white, grassroots guy" and that it instead needed to be championed by representatives of Tulsa's African-American community. Chapman took exception to that advice.
"Why do you have to spin everything?" he asked. "We're all just humans."
Chapman said he has been pleased to see the progress toward establishing the John Hope Franklin Park and Reconciliation Center, which he cited as one of the finest projects the city of Tulsa has ever undertaken.
"I hope the city puts as much into that as it does the ballpark," he said.
Chapman said he's willing to be flexible on a new name for the district.
"If they don't like the Bob Wills Arts District, let's just name it New Greenwood--or after Wayman Tisdale," he said. "There are some truly honorable people an arts district can be named after."
Ultimately, Chapman hopes to achieve a larger purpose with his undertaking.
"It's not just about changing a name, it's about understanding the history of where you're at," he said.
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