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New heights

A historic neighborhood confronts its past

The Brady Heights Neighborhood Association is dropping ‘Brady’ from its name—a step toward changing the name of the neighborhood at large

Greg Bollinger

Fliers littered the streets of Brady Heights on a windy summer day in 2013. I hopped off my bicycle to chase after the scattering papers. The message on them was unambiguous: Tate Brady, one of Tulsa’s most prominent founders, was a cold-blooded killer and Klansman. Winds of change were blowing through the streets of Brady Heights and I, president of the neighborhood association at the time, braced for impact.

At City Hall, councilors and their constituents had been facing off in a debate about changing the name of Brady Street. It seemed it was only a matter of time before public pressure reached our neighborhood. I wondered nervously if I would be called on to lead our neighborhood through a name change. I felt ill-equipped for the task and was relieved when life events took me away from my post as president.

Fast forward six years: Tulsa’s Brady Street has undergone not one but two name changes. The Brady Arts District quickly and quietly dropped “Brady” from its name, and The Brady Theater announced it would follow suit. The Lee Elementary community was embroiled in an entire year of debate before finally changing the school’s name to Council Oak Elementary, as many other confederate monuments were being removed across the country in the cover of night.

Critics might see these events as a contemporary trend in “political correctness,” but members of the Tulsa community have been reckoning with Tate Brady’s violent, racist legacy for decades. State Representative Regina Goodwin, a longtime resident, has steadily, over the course of 20 or so years, pressed the leadership of the Brady Heights Neighborhood Association to examine Brady’s well-documented portfolio of hate crimes and consider changing the name of the neighborhood. The neighborhood leadership has, in turn, pointed repeatedly back to the neighborhood association’s origin story.

Founded by Wess and Cathryn Young in 1980, the Brady Heights Neighborhood Association was at the forefront of preservation and revitalization in Tulsa. Under their leadership, Brady Heights was Tulsa’s first neighborhood to receive a historical designation from the National Register of Historic Places. Proud of the progress made under the banner of Brady Heights, the Youngs resisted changing the name.

They were hardly impartial to the lasting effects of Tate Brady’s involvement in the Ku Klux Klan—Wess Young was himself a survivor of the 1921 Race Massacre. Whenever the subject of a name change was broached, neighborhood leadership had consistently deferred to the wishes of Wess and Cathryn Young, who passed in 2014 and 2013 respectively, to keep the name.

But it was a new year, now 2019, and Brady’s time had come.

In the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, residents of Brady Heights gathered in a church basement to wrestle with a painful past and present—not just the racial atrocities committed by the neighborhood’s namesake, but also the recent injuries caused by gentrification and a changing neighborhood.

The mood was somber but supportive, and those in attendance seemed as eager to listen as they were to speak. The majority of speakers voiced support for what they viewed as a necessary change that would remove barriers and propel the neighborhood forward. A popular argument against name changes and monument removal is that you can’t, or shouldn’t, “erase history.” Several neighbors in the room built a case against this mindset.

“The thing about history is it’s constantly being made,” Chutney Hutton said. “The history of who Tate Brady was has to be considered fully … those implications still hurt people today. The KKK exists today. It’s not just history. It’s right now.”

One of the few dissenting voices came from Anam Sulvetta. Having grown up in the neighborhood under very different conditions than those that exist today, he railed against the name change. The neighborhood was bad when he was young, he admitted, but the kids stuck together and adults like his mom looked out for everyone regardless of race or class. He and his childhood friends were cast aside, he felt, as more and more affluent white people moved into the neighborhood. In Tate Brady’s day the neighborhood was rich, white, and racist. Sulvetta asked those in the room to consider the ways in which the neighborhood had cycled back to those origins.

“For myself, it felt like it became a racist neighborhood,” Sulvetta reflected. “Because nobody never once, all the people that moved into this neighborhood, never once reached out to any of us kids.”

Ultimately, votes were cast in favor of changing the name of the non-profit neighborhood association entity to “The Heights Historic District, Inc”—a small, internal step towards changing the name of the neighborhood at large. The board made promises to continue working towards inclusivity and improved race relations. Sulvetta, grieving a neighborhood lost in his eyes to gentrification, cast the lone dissent and issued a challenge:

“If you change the name and then you don’t make a change in the neighborhood, you did it for nothing.”

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