OKC’s Freedom Center being restored as a civil rights landmark

A longtime civil rights landmark, the Freedom Center, is getting a long overdue revamp as part of efforts to remember and keep alive the vision of those who fought for equality and an end to discrimination in Oklahoma City.

The building, at 2609 N Martin Luther King Ave., was originally a Mobil gas station before it was purchased and turned into the headquarters of the NAACP Youth Council. It was there that teacher Clara Luper led efforts to remove the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from the law of the land and make it a reality.

As the movement’s leaders moved on, including Luper, the Freedom Center fell into disuse. Closed in 2011, the property went into receivership under retired Oklahoma City Urban League former CEO Leonard Benton. A rebuilt board of trustees has since raised $1 million to bring the Freedom Center back to life with additional endowment funds for operations.

“This building has survived a lot,” Benton said. “The building was threatened. There was a bombardment. People’s lives were in danger. It reminds us that freedom is not free.

The building was burned down on September 11, 1968.

In recent weeks, the cracked brick facade was removed as part of efforts to repair the building’s structure. The monument wall honoring civil rights heroes that stood for decades in front of the Freedom Center was recently removed for restoration of names and images by Wilbert Memorials.

The monument will return when the Freedom Center reopens, but stacked at a 54-degree angle at the corner entrance facing Martin Luther King Avenue and NE 25. This angle, Benton said, is intended to reflect the decision to the 1954 Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education which struck down “separate but equal” segregation laws.

Crews removed the Civil Rights Hero Monument to begin cleanup and repairs.  The monument will then be reassembled at the corner of the Freedom Center property.  Provided.

“It owns a lot of the creative work that Ms. Luper did to pay homage to a lot of people from previous generations that the efforts of people in the 60s and 70s stood on,” Benton said. “I have seen Oklahoma Historical Society documentation from the Luper Collection which contains biographical information for each of the honorees on the monument, so that we can tell an accurate story.”

When completed, the Freedom Center will house a permanent physical archive of the city’s civil rights movement that will include the office and desk where Luper worked, the public amplifier and speaker used during the protests, and two pianos used in the framework of the organization of gatherings.

Among those overseeing efforts to keep the legacy of civil rights alive are those who were children when Luper led them in lunchtime protests in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“Joyce Henderson (one of the original sit-in protesters) came in and went to the two pianos and started singing civil rights rally songs,” Benton said. “We think it’s very important that these pianos and this music represent the movement, the spirit and the excitement-creating program for the marches.”

The Freedom Center is part of a planned 5-acre campus and larger effort to tell the story of civil rights and keep it alive. Across campus, at E Madison and Martin Luther King Avenue, $16 million in MAPS 4 funding will pay for the construction of a Clara Luper Civil Rights Center that will serve as both a civil rights museum and a event space.

The Freedom Center was originally also funded under MAPS 4, but in an effort to meet rising construction costs and complete the Freedom Center sooner, its funding was moved to the Clara Luper Center.

The Freedom Center is now privately funded, as is the Clara Luper Sit-in Plaza, a monument depicting the 1958 Katz lunch counter sit-in on Robinson Avenue and Main Street. This sit-in involving school children led by Luper was one of the first in the country and inspired the better-known Greensboro sit-in by students two years later.

Luper was and remains a figure of national prominence with his death noted in The New York Times and the downtown Oklahoma City Post Office named in his honor.

When the Freedom Center property was purchased in 1967, Luper said the goal was “to give underprivileged children the opportunity to grow up right, to learn the value of helping each other, and to see the adult world supported by a sense of belonging”.

Civil rights activist and educator Clara Luper stands next to the new 1992 Black History Monument in front of the Freedom Center, 2609 Martin Luther King Ave.  The granite monument was erected as a tribute to local, state, and national civil rights leaders, including Luper.  Among the projects funded by MAPS 4 are the renovation of the Freedom Center and the construction of the Clara Luper Civil Rights Center.

After the firebombing in 1968, Luper was aided in fundraising by Lieutenant Governor George Night and civic leader Stanton Young. The vision was to go beyond simple reconstruction. Luper and the NAACP hoped to raise funds to construct a second building that would house a civil rights library, classrooms, and administrative offices.

The original Freedom Center was rebuilt, the rest of the vision was never realized as Luper’s group faced another firebombing in 1970. The new campus is considered the accomplishment from Luper’s original vision.

Jabee Williams, part of a new, younger group of civil rights activists, said in high school he was assigned a big Oklahoma history book that didn’t mention Luper or his efforts to put end to segregation and discrimination.

“Part of the reason we do these things is so our kids won’t have to go through them,” Williams said. “We want to make sure they see what we’ve been through and that we don’t repeat those things. The continued struggle for civil rights is seen in many things that we see unfold every day. And if I don’t get up and fight and work, then all the work Mrs. Clara Luper has done has been for naught.

Work continues at the Freedom Center at NE 25th and Martin Luther King Blvd.  in what will become the campus of the Clara Luper Civil Rights Center in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, July 13, 2022.
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