The Patton brothers, Gus and Dan, could have had no idea how much future turmoil their street-naming system may have saved Tulsa in recent years.
Because of the Pattons, few Tulsa streets are named for people — and that means few arguments about whether those people are worthy of the honor.
That matters today in an era when the character of historical figures is being closely re-examined. Across the nation, names long-respected — or, in many cases, long-forgotten — have been deemed unworthy of public commemoration and taken down or replaced.
“Some of it is a change in sensibilities. Some of it is that different voices are being heard,” said Brian Hosmer, the University of Tulsa’s H.G. Barnard Professor of Western American History.
“It could be that there were people who always objected to some of these names, but they were never asked their opinion,” he said.
So far several Tulsa buildings — most notably Lee Elementary School — have been renamed because of shifting public opinion, but only one Tulsa street name — Brady — has been the subject of controversy.
But as short as the list is of Tulsa streets named for people, a few could be considered problematic by today’s standards.
Lewis Avenue, Haskell Street and Sheridan Road, for instance, are all associated with men who were controversial even in their own time.
Jackson Avenue is probably named for Jackson, Mississippi, but that city was named for Andrew Jackson, and Jackson’s Indian removal policy as president still makes him not altogether popular in eastern Oklahoma.
First some local history.
Although modern Tulsa dates from 1882, it wasn’t formally surveyed and platted until the Pattons were hired to do it in the early 1900s. They recommended naming north-south streets for cities and simply numbering the east-west ones.
Had the Pattons’ protocol been strictly observed, Tulsa would have had even fewer streets named for people and avoided its biggest headache to date. Early on, it was decided to name rather than number the first 26 streets north of the Frisco Railroad tracks.
That is how North Second became Brady Street, named for early Tulsa merchant Tate Brady.
An indefatigable town booster and signer of the original city charter, Brady fell out of favor about a decade ago when his vigilantism and involvement in a scheme to move black Tulsans out of the Greenwood District following the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre became more widely known.
Today the former Brady Street is officially known as Reconciliation Way.
Interestingly, no one paid much attention to Lewis Avenue, which was named for one of Brady’s cohorts in the Greenwood relocation proposal.
Also an early Tulsan, S.R. “Buck” Lewis comes across as a tough customer. He actually chaired the post-1921 relocation committee and complained bitterly about the Red Cross “spoiling” the displaced African Americans in its care. A decade later he was accused of being the money behind a scandal sheet targeting public officials he didn’t like.
A few blocks north of the former Brady Street is Haskell, named for Oklahoma’s first governor. A railroad attorney who settled in Muskogee prior to statehood, Haskell managed to put together a political machine that controlled Oklahoma politics for decades.
Although a Democrat, Haskell allegedly had ties to the Ohio operators who would put Republican Warren Harding in the White House a decade after Haskell left politics.
As governor, Haskell is most remembered for engineering the early transfer of the state capitol from Guthrie to Oklahoma City — a scheme supposedly worked out in Tate Brady’s hotel.
Haskell’s single term, though, was also marked by his Tulsa federal grand jury indictment for cheating the Creek Nation out of several Muskogee town lots. A judge brought in from Utah to hear the case quickly dismissed it, citing the statute of limitations.
It’s unclear whether Sheridan Road was named for Gen. Phil Sheridan. The Army officer and Union general had no clear connection to the area, but no other origin for the name has presented itself. Apparently, the name was in use long before the street was incorporated into the city grid.
Phil Sheridan is one of those historical figures whose complex legacy presents a conundrum to those concerned about such things. Prickly, tough-minded and relentless, he was both widely respected and thoroughly despised in his own day.
As Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite cavalry officer, Sheridan dealt many of the crushing blows that finally defeated the Confederacy. After the Civil War, he enforced Reconstruction on Louisiana and Texas, where he and the homegrown leadership quickly developed an intense mutual hatred.
“If I owned Texas and hell,” Sheridan once said, “I’d rent out Texas and live in hell.”
Sheridan was also credited with holding Chicago together after the great fire of 1871 and years later sent troops to keep railroaders and land speculators from taking over what is now Yellowstone Park.
But Sheridan also took the “total war” tactics of Grant, Sherman and himself to the Southern Plains. He ordered the destruction of Indian villages and horses and encouraged the hunting of buffalo to near extinction.
According to a junior officer, Sheridan once offhandedly remarked, “The only good Indians I’ve seen are dead.” In time, this became remembered as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Sheridan denied saying either, but his ruthlessness in subduing the Southern Plains tribes is well-documented.
So how does a community decide whether it wants someone’s name on a street or a school or a government building?
Hosmer, whose primary study area is the American West, said the public has to understand the difference between history and commemoration.
“They’re related but two different things,” he said. “Commemoration is about who we are now. History is foundational.”
Taking names off streets and schools doesn’t change history, Hosmer said, but it does signal a change in who a community chooses to honor.
And that signals something else, as well.
“People attach certain kinds of identity to (names), and change is scary,” Hosmer said. “But it’s also about power. Who gets to name things — there’s a power dynamic at work.”
Controversies over names of public places, he said, are often “stand-ins for larger shifts” in society.
“Why do people get so exercised? That’s the most interesting question,” Hosmer said. “It’s not about history. If you change a name on a building, you do no damage to history whatsoever.”
Tulsa City Councilors offered a forum recently on the Equality Indicators report, which uses 54 equality measures that compare outcomes of groups likely to experience inequalities.
Mayor G.T. Bynum was at it again earlier this month, trying to convince city councilors that his proposed police oversight program was not some kind of budget-busting, no-holds-barred, anti-police campaign bound to result in mission creep and nefarious manipulation by future administrations.
He also took the opportunity to remind anyone who would listen that his proposed Office of the Independent Monitor would do more than review police use-of-force incidents. Equally important, he told councilors, would be the OIM’s work to review best practices and make policy recommendations; and to conduct community outreach.
But several councilors wanted to talk about who would conduct the use-of-force investigations, how much the program would cost, who could hire and fire the OIM director, and how Tulsans could be certain the program would not turn into something it was not intended to be.
Many of the councilors’ concerns are based on what they’ve heard about the Denver OIM, including from Denver police officers during a meeting arranged by the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police.
Bynum has hailed the program as the country’s gold standard for police oversight bodies and said he would look to draw from it in establishing Tulsa’s OIM.
So they talked. The June 19 conversation lasted well over an hour, with the mayor answering councilors’ questions and clarifying what the program would be and what it would not be.
As a starting point, he noted that Tulsa’s form of government is different than the city of Denver and Denver County governments, whose law enforcement officers are overseen by the Denver OIM.
As a result, there are some powers the Denver OIM has that are not allowed — or would be difficult to implement — under Tulsa’s charter and ordinances. There is no more important example of this than in how use-of-force investigations can be conducted in Tulsa.
In Denver, OIM staff can be present with police throughout use-of-force investigations, and can even recommend discipline. The city’s contract with police prohibits such changes in working conditions unless they are agreed to as part of the collective bargaining process.
Bynum’s proposal instead gives the OIM 10 days to audit an Internal Affairs investigation to ensure that it was thorough and proper policies followed.
“The (police) chief can then direct IA to go back and look at those things,” the mayor said.
The OIM would have access to all records and files used to prepare the report but would have no authority to recommend discipline.
“That is ultimately the chief’s decision to make … on discipline,” the mayor said.
If the OIM failed to return its reports within 10 days, it would be assumed that the Internal Affairs investigation was conducted properly.
Here is a brief summary of councilors’ other concerns and what the mayor had to say in response:
Council concern: Person leading OIM could become a puppet of the mayor, hired and fired at will.
Bynum’s response: The director of the OIM could not be hired and fired at will by the mayor because he would be a civil service employee, just like the chief of police or fire chief, who would have all the protections of the city’s civil service system.
Council concern: Mission creep: that over time the role of the OIM would be expanded to include other powers and responsibilities.
Bynum’s response: The job responsibilities and authority of the OIM would be set out in a city ordinance approved by the City Council.
“This isn’t just a broad generalization that you can just go out and do whatever you want,” he said. “The ordinance would clearly stipulate the parameters of the work they (the OIM) could do.”
Council concern: A future mayor and City Council could change the OIM ordinance.
Bynum’s response: “If the elected representatives of the citizens decide that, yeah, we do that all the time.”
Council concern: Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation could do use-of-force reviews for much less than the $500,000 to be budgeted annually for the OIM, and would bring law-enforcement expertise.
Bynum’s response: The mayor said that although he appreciates the argument for having OSBI involved, he is inclined to favor having an independent entity do use-of-force reviews. He noted that if OSBI were contracted to do the reviews, it would be up to the police chief to request it.
“If that review of that work is contingent on the chief of police asking OSBI to do that, then they are not independent of the Police Department, which is one of the main parts of this whole exercise,” Bynum said.
The $500,000 in annual funding the mayor has proposed for OIM would cover the entire cost of the program, not just staff to review use-of-force incidents.
Council concern: The OIM program would cost $500,000.
Bynum’s response: $500,000 is four-tenths of 1 percent of the more than $120 million a year the city spends on police.
Council concern: The proposed Citizen Oversight Board would conduct investigations, interview police.
Bynum’s response: “The purpose of this group is to provide oversight of the OIM. This is not a group of citizens we’re sending to look at IA investigations or to interview police officers. None of that.”
Council concern: If not properly administered, the OIM could hurt police morale.
Bynum’s response: Bynum compared the OIM to other steps the city has taken to improve transparency, such as officers’ use of body cameras, and said he believes they give both the public and law enforcement a needed independent assessment of police actions.
He recalled viewing body camera footage of an incident in which a Tulsa resident expressed concern that officers would “watch out for each other” when investigating the matter. The officer said no, according to Bynum, and noted that the city would likely be getting an OIM.
“That is exactly why we want this, so our officers can tell people there is somebody outside the department that is looking at something that can verify that it was done the right way,” the mayor said.
When WPX Energy officially opens the doors to its 245,000-square-foot headquarters near downtown in 2022, it could signal the rare opportunity for black entrepreneurs to establish a business footprint in the Greenwood District.
The development’s most important feature will be a 15,000-square-foot section dedicated to commercial retail space that promises to attract tenants, particularly black entrepreneurs looking to house their businesses.
What the commercial space is used for “is completely up in the air,” WPX senior attorney Kevinn Matthews told the Tulsa World. “But we’ve discussed the possibility of encouraging minority entrepreneurship. You’re talking about empowerment through entrepreneurship, which is a big piece of this.”
While WPX representatives made it clear that the company has not been instructed by Greenwood leaders to set aside vacant spaces specifically for black-owned businesses during a round of meetings with area stakeholders over the course of several months, it is understood that minorities should at least be allowed equal opportunity to compete for the spaces, Matthews said.
Rose Washington, executive director of the Tulsa Economic Development Corp., expressed sensing a “strong commitment” in discussions with company officials to ensure that African Americans are given the chance to make that prospect a reality.
Greenwood featured more than 300 black-owned businesses at its height nearly a century ago. The district currently has 20 businesses owned and operated by African Americans, mostly concentrated in what’s known as Black Wall Street.
“It will add to the momentum we’re seeing on the black business-development side,” said Washington, who envisions the space transforming into an area similar to the Shoppes on Peoria in the 1700 block of North Peoria Avenue. “I think there is a genuine commitment to pay tribute to what was lost and pay tribute to the successful businesses that were thriving there. What was lost can’t be rebuilt there again, but we can definitely build something to pay tribute to what was lost.”
Early plans call for the WPX building to be built between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Detroit Avenue and from Reconciliation Way to Cameron Street.
Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, who also is a Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce board member, said WPX’s overtures to revive what she described as a “black entrepreneurial spirit” is timely for the Greenwood area.
“This is especially true for larger companies in the Tulsa community,” said Hall-Harper, who hopes WPX continues its investment in Greenwood by creating avenues for minority youths to advance in the energy industry. “They understand where they are and the history of the district. I approve of it.”
In addition to room for retail space, the project is to have a public pathway that will connect the Guthrie Green and John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park to pay tribute to the legacy of the historic district.
“We’re also being very thoughtful about the role we can play in honoring Greenwood and helping bring people together,” said WPX CEO Rick Muncrief.
Reuben Gant, executive director of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, sees WPX’s move to Greenwood — despite its being a nonminority-run company — as a reliable job provider for the community and a potential catalyst for economic growth.
Gant was also pleased with the interest WPX expressed in its desire to include minorities in its work.
“It says a lot about the company because it is something they don’t have to do,” Gant said. “They are not under any mandatory affirmative action process. But they recognize to be part of a community, it feels like, they want to go the extra mile to include the community.”