Opinion When saving a symbol of white supremacy is a way to resist it

The building at 1012 North Main Street in Fort Worth was originally completed in 1924 as a Ku Klux Klan building. It was sold, passing through many different owners' hands. Now a coalition is looking to transform it into an international center for arts and community healing. (Amanda McCoy/Star-Telegram via AP)
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FORT WORTH — If Adam W. McKinney, a classically trained ballet dancer and professor of dance, and his partner Daniel Banks hadn’t stumbled onto a providentially timed tweet, a physical manifestation of North Texas’s dark past might have been lost forever.

In 2018, McKinney was researching Fred Rouse, a Black butcher killed by a White mob in Fort Worth in 1921, when he learned about a Ku Klux Klan Klavern 101 building opened in 1924 — that, to his surprise, not only remained standing but still had its original facades. So the couple, co-founders of the Fort Worth arts and service organization DNAWORKS, decided to try to repurpose the dilapidated building.

Then came many months of reaching out to the owners — until Banks, a “once-in-every-two-months” Twitter user, got an alert while he and McKinney happened to be visiting the building. It was from Historic Fort Worth. It informed them that the owners had applied for permission to demolish the structure.

“I didn’t know if it was cosmic serendipity or if I was delusional,” McKinney told me.

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The rest, so to speak, is history.

At a time when the country is rightly being pressured to exhume its brutal past, it’s jarring to realize how much of Texas’s historic cruelties have been hiding in plain sight all along.

As a native Dallasite, I never knew that I grew up just 40 minutes from one of the oldest purpose-built KKK headquarters in the United States.

Nearly 100 years ago, Ku Klux Klan Klavern 101 — a Klavern was a local KKK unit — built the hall as a space for marching practice, minstrel shows and other events. The auditorium could hold an estimated 2,000 people. The ground floor alone is 22,000 square feet.

Over time, the building’s racist beginnings faded from view. In 1925, it burned, though the Klan rebuilt quickly. But in 1927, it was sold to Leonard Brothers department store, and after that it was used as an auditorium and dance hall. In the 1940s, the Ellis Pecan Company bought it to serve as a warehouse. In 2004, it was bought by an entity called Sugarplum Holdings, and the hall, despite its past, draws interest from performers and arts groups; the Texas Ballet Theatre at one point was interested in the space for rehearsals.

I visited the building this winter. The roof is disintegrating, and a door had been broken down, allowing me to peek inside. There were clear signs that the homeless had found shelter there. I was also struck by the graffiti, found it beautiful even — it was a sign that colorful new energy could emerge out of the residue of hatred.

That’s where McKinney, Banks and DNAWORKS come in.

That serendipitous text two years ago set in motion an epic repurposing. According to city rules, the building’s owners were required to explore options other than demolition with the community. Banks and McKinney went to work holding meetings and gathering support, ultimately joining forces with eight other nonprofits representing groups formerly targeted by KKK hate.

Through grants and donations, the coalition, which calls itself Transform 1012 N. Main Street, bought the hall in January.

According to local historian Richard Selcer, there is little evidence that violence or rallies took place inside the hall itself. But the massive stage within is a reminder of how the production of art, including dance and choreography, was part and parcel of the Klan’s dual need to foster belonging within its ranks and to project strength.

The hope is Black dancers such as McKinney, along with dancers from the SOL Ballet Folklorico, will use the space for dance, for resistance, for art. But the point won’t be to romanticize pain. “As artists, our goal is never to retraumatize, for that leaves us disempowered,” McKinney told me. “We want to activate change.”

For now, the coalition is focusing on raising money to get the building stabilized and to begin work. They plan to name the eventual arts center after Fred Rouse, the butcher lynched 101 years ago.

It all raises a profound question: Is removing symbols of white supremacy the path to healing?

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Texas last year removed 15 monuments to the Confederacy, including the renaming of schools and roadways. On the other side are those who argue that removing symbols — even those meant to glorify white supremacy — is tantamount to erasing history.

We’re familiar with those two points of view, but Transform 1012 points up a third one: Fighting and healing from white supremacy can also be about resource redirection toward harmed communities and their present-day needs.

Transform 1012’s efforts show what is really at stake in these tugs of war. Who gets to write America’s story? Formerly targeted groups in America are demanding a say in how history and memory are shaped. And we should let the artists, the dancers and poets help lead the way.