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  • Steve Gerkin

Beno Hall: Tulsa’s Ku Klux Klan Klubhouse

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

By Steve Gerkin -


Beno Hall, Tulsa's Klan Headquarters at 501 N Main St. in Tulsa


Think of a hall. Well, there's a pool hall, city hall, concert hall, dining hall, great hall, and Carnegie Hall. So many halls. Tulsa had a historically significant hall that few know about today. One might call it a public secret. It was a clubhouse filled with men of conviction, men for law and order, men who espoused Christianity, men for America first, men who were manly: their opinions.


My dad went to his Masonic hall — an extravagant temple, really — in Sioux City, Iowa. It was hush, hush, about the goings on inside the three-story building close to the YMCA. They had rings, rituals, and rites. That much I knew. They were community leaders, who espoused to the value of law, God, and nationalism. That much I knew. But they did not wear white sheets, nor rough-up Black Americans. The members of this specific hall on Tulsa’s North Main Street did. That much I know.

Men asked to join went through a ceremonial induction, like a fraternity. There were nominal dues, like those of the Elk, Rotary, or Moose Clubs, whose credos have the public's best interests at heart. One such Tulsa brotherhood built a meeting hall, a physical structure to plan secret ceremonies and clandestine adventures for the good of the community; actions steeped in post-civil war traditions, sacred beliefs, and a history of violence. And when they chose, their services became public spectacles to remind the citizens the Klan still cared. In today's political world of the 2020s and commensurate with the number of immigrants entering America—immigrants of color, this group has seen its numbers swell. There are no apparent temples today. Oh, but there was in early Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was a sight to see. Beno Hall was north of downtown, for members only and during social occasions for their wives and kids, no matter the ages—kids in training to be members one day, like their heroes, like their dads. Perhaps, a family that terrorizes together stays together?


The monstrous, three-story, steel-reinforced, stucco building towered along the western edge of race massacre-decimated Greenwood. It dominated the landscape at the foot of Standpipe Hill, sporting a bright whitewash, the favorite color of its primary residents. Inside, its members vowed to protect their "100% Americanism notion." They reasoned that you had to swear to secrecy and seclusion to become a guardian of liberty. And you had to embrace intimidation and violence as a way to assert your values.

In January 1922, the Tulsa Benevolent Association of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was officially formed as a holding company for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Incorporated. Among its founding members was Washington E. Hudson, the attorney for Dick Roland – the young black who was a scapegoat for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, now Massacre. They provided the financing and leadership to build their Klan temple, or Klavern, known as Beno Hall—Beno, short for Benevolent. One could imagine the mission statement as Make Tulsa White Again in today's parlance. Locals jokingly called it “Be No Hall," as in “Be No N–––er, Be No Jew, Be No Catholic, Be No Immigrant.”

Six months after its inception and bolstered by a raffle of 13 Ford automobiles netting nearly half of the $75,000 (2022 value) purchase price, the Benevolent Association bought the Centenary Methodist Church at 501 N. Main St.—at Main and Easton streets. The organization quickly outgrew this facility, and the church was razed, making way for the future monument of white supremacy. Beno Hall cost $200,000 ($3.4 million in today’s currency). Financing of the construction remained undisclosed, but the land for the building belonged to the entrepreneur, politician, and early booster of Tulsa, Tate Brady, and his wife Rachel Brady, who received a large parcel as a Cherokee allotment in 1910.

The completed Beno Hall was one of the largest auditoriums in the Southwest, holding 3,000 people. Its size provided Tulsa with a visual reminder of the Invisible Empire's power, passion, and presence.


Abundant evidence points the finger at the Klan for fanning the sociological tinderbox that was 1920s Tulsa. Yearning for a spark, if even an invented one, a fired-up mob of whites took the bait and burned Greenwood to the ground in the Memorial Day, 1921 Race Massacre. Two months later, a national Klan official, Caleb Ridley—a Baptist minister, lectured at the Tulsa Convention Hall on the principles of the Klan, calling the Massacre a complete success, adding that it "was the best thing to ever happen to Tulsa and judging from the way strange Negroes were coming to Tulsa we might have to do it all over again." Such a banty rooster riles up crowds of like-thinking, like-looking, like-dressing infidels. Could political racists have the same sway over vast segments of vulnerable countries? Think Hitler, Mussolini, and others closer to home. Did the Ridley rabble-rousing cause a groundswell of believers who cottoned to his swagger and confidence?

Under the watchful eye of its Tulsa leader, the Exalted Cyclops William Shelley Rogers, membership grew to include all civic and social levels, from law enforcement to welders, bankers, dry cleaners, judges, commissioners, and oil field workers. All partook in the Beno Hall sessions that focused on increasing membership and efforts to keep Tulsa free from moral corruption and centered on family values.

Three months after the Massacre, some 300 Tulsans, supported by a crowd of 1,500 onlookers, were initiated as the first class of the Tulsa Klan No. 2. A year later, in a field north of Owasso, a nighttime "naturalization" ceremony inducted 1,020 Tulsa Klavern members before a fiery, 70-by-20 foot cross. Barely old enough to shed its diapers, the Tulsa Klan was a Goliath, towering over the personal liberties of those they deemed unworthy.


An official KKK membership certificate from Sapulpa, OK "klavern."

 

Klan recruiters were known as Kleagles, who “capitalized upon the emotions in the wake of the race riot (sic) to propagandize the white community of Tulsa,” writes Carter Blue Clark in his 1976 dissertation, A History of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma. While the Oklahoma Klan boasted over 150,000 hooded devotees in the early 1920s, the Tulsa Klavern—a reference to the local unit of the organizational structure, wherein ritual ceremonies and Klan Khoral Klub rehearsals were held—swelled to 3,000 members. Hence, the need for a permanent structure—an enormous, secure structure.


Nestled near the two-year-old ashes of upper-class black homes that once sprawled up the slopes of Sunset and Standpipe hills, overlooking Greenwood's industry, Beno Hall towered over 2,000 black Tulsans as they huddled in makeshift tents. These disenfranchised Americans lived within earshot of members' revelry. Beno Hall was the starting point for midnight parades, cross burnings along the boundaries of Greenwood, night-riding terrors, and meetings that determined political candidates' success or failure. And fine-tuning a strategy to squash the proliferation of filthy people with filthy morals who bootlegged, gambled, consorted with prostitutes, or were unfaithful husbands—all of which conflicted with the Klan's version of white, Protestant ideology.


The Tulsa Klan parades through downtown Tulsa, August 1922

 

The Klan loved parades. The most spectacular occurred in August 1922, while the wounds of the 1921 Massacre were still fresh. The parade featured 1,741 white-robed members marching silently through downtown Tulsa before an estimated crowd of 15,000. The Women of the Klan provided extra pizzazz, carrying signs with various slogans such as, “Kiss the flag or cross the pond,” a reminder that immigrants were not Americans; therefore, there should “Be None” on American soil, certainly not in Oklahoma.


The Knights had nothing against what they deemed “good n–––ers.” They were also morally incensed by the behavior of white men– especially the oil field workers who used the trolley system to come to downtown Tulsa, where they spent their cash on booze, dames, and pounds of cocaine, morphine, and heroin. In Tulsa, Biography of the American City, Danney Goble wrote, “Kluxers meted out rough justice to those that lived beyond the law’s bounds”— justice that predominantly involved acts against white Protestants.


A new inductee is welcomed to the Women of the Ku Klux Klan with roses

 

The Klan wasn’t just for older white men, either. The Tulsa Klavern vigorously promoted the Women of the Klan society and an adolescent male branch called the Junior Ku Klux Klan, which recruited boys aged 12 to 18. According to an invitation on Junior Ku Klux Klan stationery of the Tulsa Benevolent Association, a Junior KKK “Open Air Initiation” at the Lynch Farm north of Rose Hill Cemetery began at 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 18, 1924. It promised a ride to the event, if needed, and “lots of fireworks.” Although not mentioned, extra surprises of cross-making and a fashion show of the latest Klan wardrobe were crowd-pleasers.

The bowels of Beno became the initiation site when the seasons turned chilly. On January 22, 1925, "All members were expected to be there, members received $.50 for each candidate they bring, and new initiates must pay at least $2 on his initiation.” Further, it announced the “Final Plans for the Big Weiner and Marshmallow Roast on Thursday night, January 29, when you can bring your girl.” The attraction of the evening proved to be a talk by the assistant to the Exalted Cyclops and “ice cream sandwiches—O Boy!


Invitation to a recruitment event for the Junior Klan

 

Beno Hall supplied recruits with official Klan gear. For a premium price, reportedly pocketed by national officials, the home office in Atlanta regularly shipped cheap, white sheets and pointed hats, all with the tightly sewn-on patch of the organization. Yet, a Tulsa Knight’s trappings were incomplete without the Klan weapon of choice, the official KKK whipping strap.

The strap was a piece of top-grain leather four inches wide and three feet long, the handle wrapped in industrial tape, its last six inches cut into ten slits, effective for slicing through skin. Guaranteed a lifetime of satisfying lashes, hundreds of these prized weapons arrived in Tulsa. Likely, monogrammed with initials or nicknames of the owners, they hung in a secret closet.


During the Oklahoma Klan heyday years between 1921 and 1924, officials knew of 102 Klan floggings, three killings, three mutilations (including castrations), and numerous tar-and-featherings that, as a rule, followed whippings of the victims’ backs. Official but incomplete tallies showed Tulsa County provided the most violations with 74, Okmulgee County chalked up 20, while the rest of the state totaled 37.

At the time, lawlessness prevailed in Tulsa. A local reporter witnessed the flogging of J.E. Fletcher, an alleged car thief, and bootlegger, on a remote Sand Springs road in September 1921. County Attorney John Seaver declined an inquiry, stating Fletcher had gotten what he deserved and an investigation would lead to criticism of the investigators. Seaver's proclamation gave carte blanche to extralegal marauding.

During that same month, a statement by H.O. McClure, president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, put the writing on the wall in a Tulsa World article: “In Tulsa, our courthouse and city hall are practically filled with Klan members, elected to office with Klan support.” Nestled in the arms of the Special Archive Library of Tulsa University are two volumes containing members, names, addresses, and occupations, which substantiate the journalistic claims.


It wouldn’t be long before an Oklahoma governor would step in to throttle the free hand of Tulsa’s hooded fraternity.

After local Klansmen used their whipping straps to mutilate the genitalia of accused drug peddler Nathan Hantaman, the already unpopular Governor Jack Walton, on August 14, 1923, declared martial law in the city and county of Tulsa. The results of the military court investigation drew statewide attention to the horror of the Oklahoma extremists, who watched as twelve local believers entered custody. The Oklahoma legislature passed an anti-mask bill hoping to stem vigilante violence.

The flamboyant Walton, aiming squarely at the Tulsa Klavern, even calling them by name, went on the attack, saying, "I don't care if you burst right into them with a double-barreled shotgun. I'll promise you a pardon in advance." Additional irresponsible statements, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, censorship of the press, an effective Klan defense and counter-attack, and the extension of military rule to include the entire state further weakened public sentiment toward the state's leader.

Governor Walton’s declaration of war on the Order exposed their reign of terror, but they would get the last laugh. The Klan influenced the impeachment of “Jazz Band Jack” Walton, who served but ten months as governor. The boys in white cheered the departure of their nemesis in their newly dedicated Beno Hall that had earlier been the site of the Tri-State Klan convention.

The short-termed, corrupt Governor of Oklahoma, “Jazz Man” Jack Walton

 

The next few years saw a healthy Klavern using their North Tulsa facility for holiday dances, ice cream socials, and political plotting. The outer foliage appeared robust, but inside, the society was withering from internal disagreements, greed, and graft. By 1928, the Oklahoma Klan had negligible power. The Nazi party lost its leader, yet today, the party is a political force. Stalin died, yet Russian Vladimir Putin rises from the former general's ashes. Other autocrats languish after losing elections, spinning wrong-doing through random and continuing conspiracy theories, as those ever-faithful to Hitler and Stalin continue the mad hatter ways of these historical bad-boys. So it goes with America’s Klansters.


The Tulsa Benevolent Association sold the storied building to the Temple Baptist Church in 1930. During the Depression, the building housed a speak-easy, then a skating rink, then a lumber yard, and then, finally, a dance hall before radio evangelist Steve Pringle turned it into the Evangelistic Temple of the First Pentecostal Church. In his first revival meeting, Pringle introduced a little-known Enid preacher named Oral Roberts, who worked his animated, faith-healing magic on the empty lot next door. Roberts impressed in the tent atmosphere and preached with his cohort inside the vast auditorium once known as Beno Hall. His fire and brimstone were fitting bookends to the fiery crusades of the Klan.


The interior of Beno Hall shortly before its razing in 1976

 

Beno Hall became a Main Street blight in the seventies, where vagrants gambled; drug transactions took place, and money bought sex; before its demolition in 1976. The empty lot now belongs to the Oklahoma Department of Highways.


 

Steve Gerkin, is a Tulsa-based freelance writer with a Master's in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. He has authored three books and had two dozen essays published in This Land Press, where he was a Contributing Editor; nineteen of the Tulsa-focused This Land pieces composed the contents of his first book, "Hidden History of Tulsa", published by History Press in May of 2014. Nearly twenty of his works have appeared in The Iowa Review, The New Territory, The Frontier, and others. See his website at www.stevegerkinwriter.com.


Gerkin and his wife, Sue, live in Tulsa, OK.

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