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  • Steve Gerkin

The Dons of Tulsa’s Ku Klux Klan: Exposing the Leaders Behind the Secret Brotherhood

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

By Steve Gerkin -


The Tulsa Klan parades through downtown Tulsa, August 1922.

Some things don’t add up. Some things seem incongruous. How can a state legislator and the legal representation for the Black scapegoat of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre be the leading founding father of the Tulsa Ku Klux Klan: at the same time? How can a man who started the first law school in Tulsa condone egregious social justice crimes? Some realities do not seem in harmony with each other.

I suppose we should understand that is the way it goes—sometimes.


We see the recurring reality of world leaders, committed by sacred oath to preserve the foundation of their countries, act out by issuing executive orders to secede from world organizations that promote global peace and safety and a healthy environment for the future. You might be thinking, “That makes no sense. Doesn't one plus one always equal two?" Guess not. In today's world, we see similar confusing scenarios in national and local arenas.


And such was the case in Tulsa post-World War I.


**


The attorney smelled good. Damie Roland remembered certain things about her son’s court-appointed attorney, Washington Elias Hudson, known around town simply as "Wash." The squeaky-voiced, bowtie-wearing Hudson sported prominent ears and a neatly trimmed mustache, providing fodder for numerous cartoon caricatures. He had an intense look, which the Rolands might have found reassuring.

Dick Roland was a young black man who was questionably accused of assault with intent to rape a white seventeen-year-old named Sarah Page. Yellow newspaper journalists used Roland's arrest in their reporting, which many argue helped provoke the deadly Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Much of Tulsa seemed anxious to get ahold of Roland. As a prominent Vanderbilt-trained attorney and a successful state politician, Hudson was the ideal lawyer for Roland in many respects. With one glaring exception. Wash Hudson was the leader of Oklahoma’s Ku Klux Klan.


Wash Hudson, Tulsa attorney, Oklahoma legislator, and KKK activist.


Hudson’s father served as a Cyclops in the Tennessee Klan following the Civil War. Wash saw Tulsa as a lawless city and relished the chance to lead the Klan as an opportunity to fight crime. “The law had broken down completely,” Hudson recalled in a 1960 Tulsa Tribune article. “Women were raped on the streets. Men were robbed.” He continued, “We cleaned things up.”

**

Dick Roland disappeared. Damie, Dick’s adoptive mother, claims Sheriff McCollough told her that officers took him to friends of Sarah Page’s in Kansas City– ostensibly to keep him safe from a lynch mob. But there are few traces of his existence afterward. With some blacks infuriated with him, Dick's time in Tulsa was over while the Klan gained momentum.

Wash Hudson decided to do the unthinkable, despite the racial tension. Instead of backing away from the Klan, he and several civic-minded Tulsans agreed to make it official.

All five of the white trustees of the Tulsa Benevolent Association (TBA) were pillars of the city: Wash E. Hudson (Chairman), John Rogers (Secretary), C. W. Benedict, Wm. “Shelly” Rogers, and Alf G. Heggem (trustees). On January 5, 1922, they signed the articles of incorporation for the Tulsa Benevolent Association, which officially established the Ku Klux Klan as a legal organization in Oklahoma. The Tulsa KKK was born six months after the Tulsa Race Riot.

But who, precisely, were the fathers of Tulsa’s Klan? Wash Hudson, Roland’s attorney, served as a state legislator and founder of the Tulsa Law School. John Rogers, a future Dean of the University of Tulsa College of Law, served as general counsel for McMan Oil company. Heggem was a well-respected mechanical engineer; Benedict was a banker, and Shelley Rogers was a private attorney. Three men worked in the First National Bank building in downtown Tulsa.

A second-floor office of The Mayo Building at 420 South Main became the first office of the Tulsa Benevolent Association. But such a location would not suffice for such a popular organization. Overwhelmed with a tsunami of new initiates following the Riot, the Klan founders moved to secure a Klan Klubhouse.



The first Klubhouse for Tulsa’s KKK: Centenary Methodist-Episcopal Church on North Devner Ave, in Tulsa.


They bought Centenary Methodist-Episcopal Church, located on the edge of the riot scene, but even it could not contain the rapidly growing membership. In 1923, they erected a 3,000-seat, white plaster behemoth for its meetings. Locals called it "Be-No Hall," as in "Be No N____ s, Jews, Catholics or Immigrants.” The monolith of menace at 501 N. Main stood above the ashes of the former dwellings of Race Massacre survivors and overlooked the tents that had replaced their homes.

The Tulsa Benevolent Association wasn’t the only extremist group in town; vigilante squads became authorized law enforcement. Imagine a brigade of residents from a subdivision deciding those neighboring subdivisions harbored non-Believers or people dressed inappropriately or listened to that crazy rock and roll and set out to straighten them out. Imagine them walking down streets with torches and AR-15s loaded to the gills with ammo, looking for those who offended them.

**

Organized under the supervision of the Tulsa County Sheriff and Klan member W. M. McCollough, the Tulsa Law Enforcement Club was established on a cold December 1921 night during a citizen's mass meeting at the First Baptist Church. The club selected five men, including TBA trustees John Rogers and Alf Heggem, to wage war with the criminal community and eradicate the bordellos, "Choc" beer joints, and dope dens of Tulsa County. This commission and their representatives, along with County Attorney William Seaver and several justices, crafted guidelines that produced a cleanup squad of nightriders, whose responsibility was to systematically purge Tulsa's immoral element—much of which they believed was in Greenwood.

Beno Hall, according to Tulsa historian David Breed, “was the launching point of midnight parades and they would bring crosses and burn them along the boundaries of the Greenwood district." Some legal salvo landed on inspired enforcers. Twenty-three Tulsa KKK Knights faced charges of civic rioting and assaults on citizens. They were nightriders, who wielded their brand of moral cleansing. Downtown Tulsa parades of sign-toting Klansmen, Klanswomen, and Klan Juniors marched in their white finery. According to a Tulsa police history, 1,741 Klan members in full regalia marched through downtown on April 1, 1922. The empire’s presence in state and local politics was undeniable.

Three of five Tulsa County's State Representatives in 1923 enjoyed membership as Klansmen. Political meetings at Beno yielded a slate of candidates that won the local municipal elections in 1924. Several Association founders were instrumental in the legal community.

**

In addition to founding a civic club, Wash Hudson yearned for a law school in Tulsa. With four other attorneys, including his son, Hudson was granted a state charter in 1923 to open the Tulsa Law School: a free-standing school with no educational institution affiliation. Hudson became the first Dean and taught those first years in the basement of Central High School. Wash loaned his name to the school for twenty years, but he eventually sought a collegiate relationship for the law school. Rogers and Hudson found another common civic bond.

While serving on the University of Tulsa Board of Trustees and Chair of its Committee on Faculty and Curriculum, Rogers squired the acquisition of Hudson’s law school into the university family, creating the University of Tulsa College of Law in 1943. E. E. Hanson ran the school from his Mayo Building office while Rogers served as a strong-handed overseer. Once a professor and Dean of the law school, Bruce Peterson maintained, "You did not sneeze without Mr. Roger's permission." John Rogers became the official Dean of the TU law school in 1949.



John Rogers as a young Tulsa attorney and future Klansman.


Several years later, a racial episode surfaced when Kenneth Dones, an African-American and the son-in-law of Edwin Goodwin, publisher of the newspaper Oklahoma Eagle, applied for admission. Rogers did not admit him but allowed him to audit the first year if he promised to transfer to another law school the following year. Dones completed his law degree at Washburn University. Oklahoma Eagle publisher Goodwin applied successfully in 1958 to the TU College of Law, gaining admittance without a hint of discrimination. The Klan, by then, had lost its clout.


What would drive a man like Rogers to help establish the Tulsa Benevolent Association? He was a joiner. Rogers was instrumental in forming the Oklahoma American Legion and the Tulsa YMCA, served as Chamber of Commerce President in 1936, was a University of Oklahoma Regent, and held multiple University of Tulsa positions while creating the Tulsa Council of Churches. Outside of his wife and son, the First Christian Church in Tulsa and its national organization were the focal points of his life. Along with other TBA trustees, his contributions to the Tulsa Community are unquestioned and significant.

While Rogers’ membership in the Klan was ill-chosen and short-lived, Wash Hudson's involvement was more complicated. Hudson was open regarding his Klan affiliation throughout his tenure as a Democrat in the Oklahoma State House of Representatives from 1915-1917 and in the Senate from 1923-1927. During his first year as a Senator, Hudson became the Majority (Democratic) Floor leader. He prepared and presented a successful impeachment charge against Governor Jack Walton, a known opponent of the Invisible Empire, who referred to the Klan as "that whipping crowd" while offering "a pardon in advance if you burst right into them with a double-barreled shotgun." The November 1923 regular meeting at the recently dedicated Beno Hall celebrated the ouster of "Jazz Band Jack" Walton.

**

In 1924, a Klansman from the East speaking at Beno Hall promoted a stand against Catholics, Jews, and Negroes. This rhetoric sharply contrasted with the assurance given by a national Klansman, who recruited Hudson several years earlier, that the Klan oath had nothing religious about it. Hudson retorted with his own fiery speech and quit the organization, nearly causing an uproar. He claimed the entire Klan organization was under the direction of the national Republican committee. Subsequently, the Grand Dragon of the Oklahoma Klan, N.C. Jewett banished Hudson. After a change in the leadership of the Oklahoma Realm, Wash, along with his son Robert D. Hudson, rejoined the Tulsa Klavern. However, the organization was gradually declining, and his friend John Rogers was no longer on the rolls.



Alf Heggem—a Norwegian immigrant and Tulsa civic leader.


And what became of the other three founders of the Tulsa Benevolent Association? Klan member and mechanical engineer Alf G. Heggem was one of the original directors of the International Petroleum Exposition that brought thousands of oil-related professionals to Tulsa. The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce magazine, Tulsa Spirit, described Alf as an "apostle with keen business sense." Heggem supported the Trinity Episcopal Church, served as the Chamber's President in 1927, and belonged to Rotary and various Masonic rites. The Norwegian descendent was issued numerous patents for his gas preservation inventions and made a fortune primarily from the Cushing oil field bonanza rather than lawyering like the other TBA founders.

From his office in the First National Bank Building, attorney William Shelley Rogers led the Tulsa Klavern as the Exalted Cyclops at the time of the Benevolent Association's creation. He succeeded Wash as the corporation's Chairman. Living on 15th Street just shy of Utica, Shelley orchestrated the activities of the Junior KKK for teenage boys, the Khoral Klub, and the Klan's women's auxiliary. He also organized dances and ice cream socials held in Beno Hall.


Channing Benedict left Tulsa as a bank VP and bought the Chief Motel in Houston.


Serving for years as a Vice President of the First National Bank in Tulsa, Klansman Channing W. Benedict and his wife headed south by 1940, becoming the manager of a camp in Harris, Texas, and the last manager of the Chief Motel in Houston. While Benedict was content only to practice law in Tulsa, Wash Hudson and John Rogers shared larger aspirations. They ran against each other for the Oklahoma State Senate in 1922. With the substantial Democratic political clout of the Klan behind Hudson, Wash soundly defeated the Republican Rogers, who later joked he had the Klan to thank for keeping him out of politics. Rogers removed himself from the Klavern, while the diminutive Hudson continued marching to the Klan Klubhouse on North Main until the bitter end.

By 1925, the Tulsa Benevolent Association ceased to exist. The departure of Wash and other prominent Knights who objected to the Klan pressuring members to change their party affiliation to Republican deflated the empire’s stature. A withering membership, a decline in political panache, and internal politics became death knells for the Tulsa Klan.


 

Steve Gerkin, a Tulsa-based freelance writer with a Masters 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: stevegerkinwriter.com.


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

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