Fort Worth asks, Can a klan hall become a place of healing?
Two weeks before Christmas, in 1921, Fred Rouse was lying in a hospital bed, recovering from being beaten and stabbed by striking meatpacking workers.
Rouse was one of the black workers and immigrants hired to break the strike. He was leaving his shift when he was surrounded and threatened by striking workers, according to Fort Worth Star Telegram reports. Afraid for his life, Rouse shot and wounded two men before the crowd chased him down and beat him so badly police initially thought he was dead.
He had been in the hospital for five nights when about 30 white men came and took him from his hospital bed. He was found dead the next morning, riddled with bullets and hanging by a rope from a hackberry tree.
The hackberry tree was on Samuels Avenue about a mile from the Tarrant County courthouse, and about the same distance from a large meeting hall recently built by the Ku Klux Klan.
The tree is now gone, one of many relics of the past that modern, bustling Fort Worth has left behind. But the klan hall – believed to be the last purpose-built klan building in the United States – still stands at 1012 North Main St. The future of the building has sparked a passionate debate in the city that, a century later, is still rife with racial tension.
Adam McKinney, a dance professor at Texas Christian University, had been working on a piece about Fred Rouse this year when he learned that the owner of the building had applied for permission from the city to tear it down.
“Adam was actually dancing in front of the building” when he found out, recalls Daniel Banks, who with Mr. McKinney co-founded DNAWORKS, an arts and service organization, in 2006.
“So he’s dancing,” Dr. Banks continues, “and I’m sending tweets out tagging the mayor and tagging our councilwoman saying, ‘We have plans for this building. Would you like to hear them?’”
Their plan, still in its infancy, is to convert the former klan hall into a shared community space focused on promoting dialogue, justice, and equity in Fort Worth while highlighting the city’s history of racism and racial violence and honoring its victims. In July, a city commission voted to delay granting permission to demolish the building for 180 days.
“We are in an extraordinary time in history to get it right, and by ‘right’ I think I mean something about healing, and shifting our national narrative around race,” says Mr. McKinney. “The transformation of this building, this joint project, could be something transformational for us as a country.”
Public opinion over the building’s future runs the gamut, with the range of emotions felt most keenly in the African American community that makes up almost a fifth of the city.
Before the city commission vote in July, Raymond Brown – a Fort Worth resident for 55 years – stood up to give public comment. Wearing the jersey of football player and social justice advocate Colin Kaepernick, he told the room he had “mixed emotions.”
“I’m still on the fence,” he said. “To preserve it to me feels like the old Fort Worth way.”
Billy Daniels Jr. was the only commissioner to vote against granting the 180-day delay.
“Everything that stands doesn’t necessarily need to be preserved,” he said. “For us to leave this standing would be to perpetuate that racial problem that we have yet to really get a handle on.”
He was referring to a report released in December saying that racism in Forth Worth is “systemic, institutional, and structural.”
The report came from a special task force formed after a 2016 incident in which Jacqueline Craig, an African American woman, was arrested along with her two teenage daughters after she called police to report a neighbor grabbing her 8-year-old son’s neck.
Fort Worth also has seen the deaths of several unarmed black men at the hands of police, including Jermaine Darden during a 2013 raid and Christopher Lowe shortly after being taken into custody in 2018. The task force found evidence of systemic racial disparities: Despite constituting 19% of the population, African Americans accounted for 41% of arrests in 2016 and 2017; all 14 Fort Worth Independent School District schools classified as “Improvement Required” by the state were in minority neighborhoods; and racial segregation in the city, as measured by the federal dissimilarity index, increased between 2010 and 2018.
Outside a Starbucks in Montgomery Plaza, a historic department store converted into a shopping center and condominiums, Michael Bell is skeptical. A community activist since the mid-1980s, he doubts that converting the former klan hall into something devoted to healing race relations will make much difference.
“The real problem is as deep as the sidewalk,” he says. “Those attitudes have been crystallized – concretized, if you will – here in Fort Worth.”
As the pastor at Greater St. Stephen First Church since 1985, Dr. Bell has been in similar positions before. In the early 1990s he was part of the Tarrant Clergy for Inter-Ethnic Peace and Justice, a community group that received a local award “for improving and promoting positive human relations.” The group closed up shop a few years later.
“There’s always an effort which is window dressing. There’s always an effort to make it appear that there’s going to be some genuine [change],” he says. “But I’ve been living more than a minute now and I know better. My experience is that it’s not going to happen.”
“History would get lost”
The Fort Worth elite of the 1920s intertwined with the Ku Klux Klan. Texas and Indiana were the most active klan states in the country, and the group would parade hoodless down the city’s streets. Most of the sheriff’s and police departments were klan members, as was a co-founder of one of Fort Worth’s oldest law firms, according to Richard Selcer, a Fort Worth historian and author. Before they built the hall, the klan held meetings in the county courthouse basement.
Mr. Selcer says there were two lynchings in Fort Worth during this period: Rouse and Tom Vickery, a white man who killed a police officer. In both cases, klan members were implicated but the organization itself was not accused of anything.
By the late ’20s the klan was losing membership, influence, and funds. Two years after raising enough money to rebuild the hall after a fire (arson was never proved), the klan sold the building to a grocery. They had already been renting it out for public performances: Harry Houdini appeared there in 1924. Over the years its roots faded from public memory. What became known as the North Main Street Auditorium served at various times as a dance hall, wrestling venue, boxing arena, and – from 1946 until 2000 – a factory for the Ellis Pecan Co.
“The klan hall name is on it, and will never be erased, but it was other things besides a klan hall for many, many more years,” says Mr. Selcer. “I’d love to see it saved.”
That will, among other things, be an enormous financial ask. The building could cost more than $30 million to renovate, he estimates. The Fort Worth Military History Museum is also interested in moving into the building, but “to save a building with that kind of money, you’ve got to have some deep-pocketed individual or group who really wants to save it,” he adds.
What happens when the stay of demolition expires is unclear. Justin Light, an attorney who represented the building’s owner at the July commission meeting, said at the time that a 180-day delay “does not mean that on day 181 the building is going to come down.”
In the meantime, DNAWORKS will be meeting with local groups and individuals, fundraising, and refining its plan for the building. The stakes are high, the organization believes.
“The history of racism and slavery and Jim Crow and lynchings and racial terror, these stories aren’t told enough,” says Mr. McKinney. If the klan hall were torn down, he continues, “I feel like a history would get lost.”
“This is an opportunity to hold that history to account, and to have the kinds of conversations here to make sure that that history is not repeated,” adds Dr. Banks. “And to turn a monument of hate into a monument of memory and healing.”
Perhaps their most significant endorsement came at the July meeting, when Robert Rouse, the grandson of Fred Rouse, made his comments.
He grew up in Fort Worth hearing his father and grandmother tell stories “of what you could and couldn’t do.” You couldn’t drink from the white water fountains. You couldn’t go to certain parts of Leonard’s Department Store. You couldn’t, like his grandfather, try to work at a meatpacking plant.
“The building at 1012 North Main was raised on nothing more than hate,” he said. “Let’s turn it into a flower.”