Mayes County is considering renaming Lake Hudson, whose namesake was a founding member of Tulsa’s local KKK chapter
At the start of a new legislative session, an Oklahoma Senate bill seeks to rename Lake Hudson, a human-made reservoir in Mayes County. The reservoir was created and named in 1964 after Tulsa attorney, state lawmaker and board member of the Grand River Dam Authority Walsh Hudson — who was also a prominent founder of the Tulsa branch of the Ku Klux Klan.
The action has been applauded by the left wing in Oklahoma as a step toward reconciliation and facing the state’s racist past. Critics on the right claim the move is a supposed re-writing of history and that changing the name insults the memory of Walsh Hudson and other contributions he made to the city of Tulsa.
The critiques from the right might seem familiar to those watching the news over the past several years. Neo-Confederates and the alt-right have made the same arguments regarding Confederate statues, buildings named after slave-owners or Southern generals or “Lost Cause” monuments, which support the ideology that the Confederacy was politically justified that persist in a supposed post-race America.
As a history major, it’s difficult for me to read statements concerning the rewriting of history. It first implies that the current rendering of history is already perfect, which makes me wonder why we would have historians at all. I guess in that vision of the discipline, all historians would discuss how great Robert E. Lee was at killing loyal Union soldiers. The pivotal argument I want to make is that who we honor matters in a democracy.
Let’s be clear: it does not matter how Walsh Hudson contributed to the city of Tulsa. The damage he has wrought through the founding of a Tulsa KKK branch outweighs any possible benefit he could have ever given to northeastern Oklahoma.
This same principle applies to every other Confederate memorial and statue that currently stands in the South. The Lost Cause in the post-Reconstruction South sought to remind people of color of the place they stood in the political, racial and social hierarchy. It wasn’t built to honor anyone’s ancestors. It was built as a testament to the idea that they never really lost. The same people that fought the most destructive war in American history to keep black people enslaved now had the power to build statues, name schools and buildings and form organizations to perpetuate that same oppression in a new form.
The Civil War was a struggle between good and evil. Yes, not everyone in the Union fought to end slavery, nor did everyone in the South fight to preserve slavery. But if you ever pick up a Confederate Constitution, you’ll read that slavery was meant to be forever enshrined in the legal and social fabric of the Confederate States of America. No matter if we like it, Southern soldiers fought to keep black people in chains. It’s a fact. It’s in the writing. Live with it.
And living with it is how we approach these monuments and the memory of the Civil War in 21st-century America. Democracy rests on an idea of honoring people we strive to become. We live and embody their hopes and ideals into our own private and public lives. We cherish the legacies of people like Abraham Lincoln, Maya Angelou and Eleanor Roosevelt because they exhibited virtues that all of us seek to hone for ourselves. We erect statues of them and put their names on buildings because we want them to be part of our public identity.
Critics of that approach might point to the fact we build monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Our president once asked where we “draw the line” after the Charlottesville rallies of 2017. Roy Wood Jr. of “The Daily Show” answered that by remembering the fact that Washington and Jefferson are not famous for only being slave owners. They founded a nation and, while hypocritical, still espoused a hope that the nation would uphold liberty and freedom for all people. They were complex men with a multi-faceted past.
When comparing them to men like Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee, they’re almost exclusively famous for their devotion to the Southern cause and rebelling against the United States. Betraying your country is not something to honor when you were on the wrong side.
There is a firm distinction between who we remember and who we honor. We should remember men like Jackson, Lee and Walsh Hudson so that we do not build a society from their values, yet honoring them is the true distortion and revision of history. Renaming Lake Hudson serves the greater purpose of defining what kind of culture Tulsans wish to cultivate. If Oklahoma wants to celebrate the legacy of the founder of the Tulsa branch of the Ku Klux Klan, it speaks more to the nature of our state than it does to him.