By Roger Moore
Recent discussion, local and national, revolves around something everyone seems to have taken for granted for the last century – knowledge of history and the implications for not at least attempting to understand it from various perspectives.
Stillwater, our town, and its university, like so many communities nationwide, are struggling to understand what and why things have perhaps reached a boiling point. Some have discussed particular topics for decades, shining a light on things that are suddenly front-and-center in 2020.
In early June, a number of Oklahoma State students, faculty, and staff, in the wake of the protests following the public death of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, protested outside Murray Hall. The building, named in honor of Oklahoma’s ninth governor and professed racist and anti-Semite, William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, opened in 1934. Its history includes serving as a women’s dormitory, and housing navy trainees during World War II; since 2002, after a state bond issue, Murray Hall became home to six departments within Arts & Sciences. One of those departments is History, ironically.
Longtime OSU history professor and Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History devotee Dr. Bill Bryans served as President of the National Council on Public History from 2006-08. His Presidential Address in 2008 focused on Murray Hall and its complicated history, a topic related to our commemorative environment that became front-and-center during the summer of 2020 instead of baseball, apple pie, and trips to the lake. A name change does not erase history. What it can do, one would hope, is lead to the discussion of racism in Stillwater, the state of Oklahoma, and nationwide. A time or two, when Murray’s name came up during graduate studies in the very building’s seminar room we were sitting in, there was always a snicker, a snort, an “it’s something we should probably change” dynamic.
Like many adolescents and teenagers growing up in Stillwater, history was never a priority for me. As a ninth-grader Oklahoma history passed in the blink-of-an-eye; some reading of a small and very old book with very little discussion of this state’s complicated story. Indian removal, the Trail of Tears, Indian Territory, Land Runs, Boomer Movements, statehood in 1907, race riots/massacres in Tulsa, the Ku Klux Klan’s prominence throughout the 1920s … and on and on and on. Is there someone to blame? Curriculum? Too many coaches teaching history? Unmotivated students? History is too boring? The answers and reasoning require a dissertation about not just Oklahoma education, but nationwide.
As director of the Sheerar Museum, many years after that first Oklahoma history class in the early 1980s, I learned more about Oklahoma’s beginnings from the Education Program built for fourth graders than one might expect. It is not necessarily a pretty story … the Land Run, the Trail of Tears, the many things that led to statehood. Most of the kids liked the interactive maps and the multiple activities associated with early Oklahoma. Many of the parents admitted to “not knowing any of this” or saying “I learned so much about Oklahoma today.” It was awkward talking to 10-year-olds about a difficult period and subject. The goal of the program is to educate, to tell the story of how Oklahoma began. There were Native American, African-American, and all ethnicities of children. What stories had they been told? Would their ancestors have taught or told Oklahoma’s beginning differently?
My brief time at the Sheerar also brought me to Rilla Askew’s novel Fire in Beulah, something that should be required reading for all Oklahomans who need a reminder of the awful things that happened just over 70 miles from Stillwater. As awkward as talking to kids about Indian removal in the nineteenth century, it was going to be equally awkward discussing Askew’s great novel with, what I thought, was going to be a diverse group of readers. Instead, it was me and a few Caucasian women discussing a subject that we could never completely understand. Most of the discussion revolved around “how did this happen?” or “what would lead someone to act this way?” Some of the explanations can be found in 1920s Oklahoma, a period not explored by many history books.
If you argue that Askew’s work is just fiction you miss the point completely. A complete history, warts and all, is required for better understanding. Ask anybody, from high school to graduate students at the university level, and hopefully, they will give you the clichéd response of “there are two sides to every story.” Actually there are three, four, five … 15 sides to most stories depending on where you were standing, viewing, observing, listening, or experiencing the event in question. It is a game that has been played forever, the varying accounts of “what happened?” It seems simple, but from what we’ve experienced in the last few months, it is obvious that nothing has a simple explanation, just varied interpretations. They are old wounds being exposed; that campfire we didn’t quite put out; that small problem that became a big problem because it was not addressed.
Unfortunately, what one can also learn from our local history museum is that its collection is not as diverse as it should be. Is this by design? Most likely not, but, like so many other issues with Oklahoma and Stillwater’s history, it is something that, moving forward, should be considered. It is not the responsibility of museums to teach your children, but it certainly can be part of a positive future.
At the end of the day, no stand-up comedian – Dave Chappelle’s latest thought-provoking addition to YouTube might be an exception – or museum, movie, book, podcast, or essay by a prominent historian is going to fix local or national problems relating to race or those commemorative statues or buildings that have questionable namesakes. But is it not in everyone’s best interest to form a better understanding of the who, what, why, where, and when of our community instead of brushing it under the rug?
Editor’s Note: Right before we finished preparing this issue for print, OSU announced that “President Burns Hargis has formally requested the OSU/A&M Board of Regents include on its June 19 meeting agenda a vote to remove the name “Murray” from Murray Hall and North Murray Hall on OSU’s campus. The building’s namesake — Oklahoma’s ninth governor, William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray — had a record of advocacy for racist policies including segregation and the promotion of Jim Crow laws.”
At that meeting, the Regents voted unanimously to remove the “Murray” name from all buildings on campus.