Monumental Malice

By Fraser Kastner –


The monument in Owen Park was erected by the Tulsa Association of Pioneers in honor of the charter members of the association living in Tulsa, Indian Territory and vicinity for thirty years from 1881 to 1921 and other pioneer families.

 

In September of 1921, a group of influential Tulsans formed the Tulsa Association of Pioneers to commemorate the founders of their city. Eventually, they installed a monument in Owen Park which stands to this day, a reminder of how they hoped to be remembered. A century later Tulsa’s true history has been obscured by the passage of time and old-boys-club omerta. The recent discovery of mass graves in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery and the newly-reaffirmed status of Eastern Oklahoma as tribal land invites us to take a deeper look at this city’s history. What is the true history of Tulsa? Who gets to tell it? And what did the PIoneers’ and their monument really stand for? An 8-foot slab of stone juts out of a small hill at the intersection of Edison Street and Maybelle Avenue, west of Downtown Tulsa. It’s easy to miss; it shares a parking lot with Owen Park, DiscoveryLab, and a few other local landmarks. The inscription commemorates a gathering of Tulsa’s “Old Timers,” those who had settled in the area in the first few years after the land rush. It reads, “This stone marks the ground where ‘Old Timers’ who had lived in Tulsa and vicinity over thirty years, met on Sept. 21, 1921, at a Barbeque given by Dr. Sam G. and Dr. Jim Kennedy. They all visited with old friends, reminisced, and organized the ‘Tulsa Association of Pioneers’ to Commemorate and Perpetuate the memory of those ‘Sturdy Pioneers’ who, by their sacrifice (sic) and effort helped to build a great Empire.” The inscription was composed by James Monroe Hall, himself an Old Timer who came to the region in 1882.

Attached to the upright stone are three horizontal additions, the largest of which contains a list of fifty families descended from those early settlers. The horizontal slabs were added sometime after the memorial was moved to its current location in 1950. This list reflects membership between 1935 and 1964. Many of the names are instantly recognizable to those familiar with Tulsa. The Kennedy, Vandever, and Thompson families lend their names to Tulsa’s most distinguished skyscrapers. Archer, Clinton, Bynum, Avery, Perryman, and Owens, are also recognizable. The Tulsa Association of Pioneers monument gives a distinctly rosy impression of those figures. It harkens back to Manifest Destiny, to the steadfast pioneer of American myth who tamed the unchurched prairie with grit, gun, and God. In truth, the Tulsa Pioneer Association was largely composed of Tulsa’s elites, a class that rose to prominence through the oil business and associated commercial apparatus and retained power through vigilante violence, yellow journalism, and all the associated dirty tricks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The monument bears the names of segregationists, war profiteers, land thieves, and at least two Klansmen. While not every name on the monument is directly connected to the violence of that era, it is likely that they knew about the activities of their peers and remained silent.

The city fathers took their secrets to the grave, and the silence stood for decades. Decades later we can begin to see a clearer image of Tulsa’s founders against the backdrop of mass graves near Greenwood and Tulsa’s continued occupancy of Native land. For a few people in Tulsa, 1921 was a good year. The region’s oil reserves were a source of massive wealth for a few, partially facilitated by the Great War. Dr. Samuel Kennedy was one such person. Kennedy’s name was on the city’s official charter, along with fellow “old-timers” J.M. Hall, P.L. Price, Tate Brady, L.M. Poe, G.W. Mowbray, B.E. Lynch, Captain Seaman, and Colonel Calkins. Kennedy retired from medicine in 1907 to manage his business interests, which had become considerable. He owned a large tract of property that covered much of what is now northwest Tulsa. A White man, Kennedy had married into the Osage tribe and much of his land was in Osage territory. He was also connected to the development of oil fields and served as an officer and board member at the first National Bank of Tulsa along with many others who would go on to make up the Tulsa Association of Pioneers. 1921would have seemed like a good time for Dr. Kennedy to throw a party. Just two years earlier he had completed work on his Kennedy Building, which a contemporary adulantly described as “the largest and finest office building in the state.” A few years later the Kennedy Manson would be complete at a cost som