OKC’s Civil Rights history gains MAPS 4 attention
$25 million proposed for renovations and new construction of facilities dedicated to Oklahoma City’s Civil Rights history
From the outside, Oklahoma City’s Freedom Center doesn’t seem remarkable.
The small, rectangular building sits on the northwest corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and NE 25. The bricked facade is collapsing and the roof is falling. Posters stuck to the outside marking it as a civil rights symbol are peeling off.
But for years, the building was a hub for civil rights activities planned by the NAACP Youth Council, Clara Luper, an Oklahoma City icon who led the first sit-in demonstration in 1958, and others. Since Luper’s death in 2011, though, the property has sat empty, left to crumble.
“I had passed by the center — many folks had passed by — and just wondered, ‘What is happening there?'” Gary Royal recalled. “And it is always, ‘Why don’t they do something?’ Whoever ‘they’ is. So we became the ‘they.’”
Royal is the project developer for Freedom Center Inc., an organization of community members dedicated to the restoration of the Freedom Center and the types of activities that took place there.
Their group pitched a comprehensive $25 million proposal to be included in MAPS 4, the city’s one-cent sales tax initiative meant to fund 16 community-improvement projects with nearly $980 million. Residents will vote on the measure Dec. 10.
“Ms. Luper spent a lot of her personal salary right here,” said Leonard Benton, chair of the Freedom Center board. “It was her and her family and some close friends making everything happen. And because of the accomplishments having been so significant and now being recognized more and more, we are moving more into the public arena of accountability. So this is us stepping up to do something.”
The proposal is to restore and preserve the existing Freedom Center building, construct the Clara Luper Civil Rights Center and repurpose a gas station into a cafe.
The goal is to create a space that teaches Oklahoma’s civil rights history, honors and memorializes the contributions of Luper and other civil rights activists, and acts as a gathering place for members of the city’s black community.
To do so, about $16 million will be used for land acquisition, construction and programming costs to create a three-block civil rights campus off Martin Luther King Avenue.
An interactive walk from the Freedom Center to the Civil Rights Center would include monuments and information explaining the struggle for equality in Oklahoma, Royal said. The Civil Rights Center would be a two-story building and event center meant to hold up to 500 individuals for dinners, lectures and classes dedicated to current social issues, he added.
Organizers have coined the term “Smithsonian caliber” to describe the high-quality experience they intend to provide through the latest museum technology, archival materials and guided tours.
“I’ve just been ecstatic at the chance for something to honor her,” said Joyce Jackson, a member of the Freedom Center board and one of Luper’s previous students. “It is way past due.”
When the city council approved the official MAPS 4 package in August, $9 million was set aside to be part of an endowment for operational costs for the center. The group has already identified other revenue streams such as ticket sales, event fees and money from the cafe to cover yearly costs, Benton said.
Most of the large concepts and features — location, funding sources and designs, which intentionally weave in symbolism to “tell the story” of civil rights through architecture — have already been decided, Royal said. This is somewhat unique, since many of the other MAPS 4 projects are still working to finalize similar facts.
Remaining details like management plans, the type of archival system and programming needed and a stabilization report for the Freedom Center are being worked on, he added.
“It’s almost like the stars came together,” Royal said. “We have new people on council and a new mayor, we have this upcoming MAPS initiative and a call for ‘dream big’ ideas. It all came together.”
Building the local economy
Beyond community education, Benton said he believes the proposal will spur economic growth in an area of Oklahoma City that suffers from years of disinvestment and blight.
“We want to change the image of what you see now,” Benton said. “Unfortunately, I would imagine that Martin Luther King would turn over in his grave if he saw some of the things that happened on the street named after him.
“We think this museum will have a tremendous impact on changing the image not only for ourselves, but for others to feel safe and feel they are headed to a destination to see something important.”
Northeast Oklahoma City is home to the Adventure District, which includes the zoo, a golf course and various museums. If 5% of the district’s annual two million visitors came to the civil rights campus, that would be a new 100,000 tourists to the community, according to data presented to city council.
The hope is the new campus will be a draw for businesses to open nearby and the campus itself could provide a variety of jobs and volunteer opportunities, Benton said.
“It is a great place for educating our own kids, educating ourselves, but it is also great new construction and investment at 23rd and MLK, in a part of our city that hasn’t seen enough new investment in recent decades,” Mayor David Holt recently told The Oklahoman. “This is a northeast project, and northeast Oklahoma City deserves that.”
Karlos Hill, chair of the University of Oklahoma’s Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies and member of the Clara Luper Legacy Committee, said he hopes the investments will continue for the area.
“A $25 million investment is something this community hasn’t really ever seen,” he said. “It suggests that there is a new focus on investing in not just parts of the city, but all of the city. I’m hopeful that this is not a one-off, but that this is the start of more investment.”
Oklahoma’s civil rights history is largely left out of the national conversation, but advocates believe the restored center will help correct that.
“It is not well known that the sit-in movement began in Oklahoma City,” Hill said. “We want people to visit north Oklahoma City and learn its history and share that history far and wide.”
It’s possible that during continued conversations with national museum directors and historians, the civil rights campus would show how serious Oklahoma City is about the contributions its community members made and the need for recognition.
“In our history, civil rights was a really important chapter, but it’s a story that we don’t really tell our kids,” Holt said. “We didn’t tell that story locally, so we shouldn’t be surprised that no one told it nationally.”
For the next six weeks, organizers are targeting churches, business groups, social organizations and neighborhood associations to promote a ‘yes’ vote for MAPS 4 on Dec. 10, Royal said.
“I’m 73,” Royal said. “I may not be there and get to see all of this. But we as a community are going to get there. And that is important. What we are doing is for the next generation. We are going to start seeing a different northeast Oklahoma City.”