'Truth will set us free': Texas activists to transform vestiges of KKK terror into cultural hub
Adam McKinney dancing as Fred Rouse, June 2019. (Photo: Daniel Banks)

At 22,000 square feet, the yellow brick Ku Klux Klan city headquarters was as big as a plane hangar. Incredibly, the KKK was once so popular in Fort Worth, Texas, the building could easily fill its 2,000 seats for ceremonies, rallies and minstrel shows. It burned down in 1924, but the KKK had enough money to quickly rebuild.

Newspapers trace the Fort Worth Klan’s disturbing efforts to normalize itself. One story describes Klansmen in white hoods and robes scaring an entire church when they walked up to the pulpit into a worship service to give the pastor a bouquet of blood red roses. Luckily for him, they were paying tribute to his charitable work in the city.

By daylight, Klansmen donated to charities and tried to recruit bankers, lawyers, ranchers and businessmen. They rode in city parades in hoods and robes at the sheriff’s invitation. But by night, they kidnapped men they believed had broken the law or defied Deep South racial or social class boundaries, beating and terrorizing victims.

But now, the Klan’s huge building has new owners — artists, dancers and musicians, from groups the KKK hated and terrorized: Black people, Latinos and people from LGBTQ+ communities. They bought the building in January to transform it into a showcase for visual art, concerts, a Juneteenth museum and a stage for performers — including SOL Ballet Folklórico and DNAWORKS.

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Workspace in the building is planned for nonprofits like LGBTQ SAVES, the Opal Lee Foundation (launched by the 95-year-old activist who helped get Juneteenth become a federal holiday) and the Tarrant County Coalition for Peace and Justice. The coalition named the project Transform 1012 N. Main Street.

Why not bring a wrecking ball?

The building had different lives before being abandoned. At the end of the 1920s, KKK membership plunged. The headquarters was sold. During the Great Depression, the building was used for dance marathons. In the 1940s, a new owner used it for a pecan warehouse.

It was bought in 2004 by Sugarplum Holdings. Today, it clearly needs lots of work. Photos show smashed glass panes in windows facing the street and the tall arched windows on the side. Chunks of the roof have caved.

Coalition members declined to be interviewed for this story.

Coalition members have yet to reveal how much the building cost. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that the former owner donated part of the cost, but he wouldn’t say what sum Transform paid.

“A bid (in January) to stabilize the building, bringing it up to code, was $1.62 million,” the Star-Telegram said. “The hard costs to turn it into the coalition’s vision is about $35 million. That doesn’t include soft costs like the design.”

Bloomberg reported that U.S/ Representative Marc Veasey helped secure substantial, unspecified funds for Transform activists via the $1.5 trillion spending bill President Joe Biden signed in March 2022.

Built in 1924, historians believe the giant hall is the biggest purpose-built Klan headquarters still standing. Not everyone agrees with the Transform approach of turning a site of hate into a place of healing. University of Texas architectural history professor Kathryn Halliday tweeted that she preferred to see the hall destroyed and replaced space by a park.

But activists didn’t want to tear the place down like a Confederate statue. Their list of financial backers includes the National Endowment for the Arts, Ford Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation. The building will be named The Fred Rouse Center for Arts and Community Healing in honor of a Black butcher, Fred Rouse, lynched in 1921. Rouse’s grandson, Fred Rouse III, sits on Transform’s board.

Texas Christian University assistant dance professor Adam McKinney and Transform cofounder have already created an augmented reality app called the Fort Worth Lynching Tour: Honoring the Memory of Mr. Fred Rouse. Despite the grim name, McKinney says people end the tour feeling hopeful. Group tours deploy bikes and buses to retrace Rouse’s final days.

In a YouTube presentation, McKinney explains as a Black, openly gay man who often feels targeted and unsafe, Rouse’s death resonated with him.

Rouse was a Black butcher who got a job at a meatpacking plant when workers went on strike for better wages. Blacks weren’t allowed to join unions in Jim Crow Texas. So, Rouse worked the job he could get. In December 1921, a crowd swarmed around him as he left work, angry at him for strike breaking. A melee ensued. The crowd blamed Rouse for shooting two strikers. They beat Rouse with metal rails and stabbed him. Police arrived and thought Rouse was dead.

Police drove him toward the morgue. They were shocked when Rouse sat up and sped him to the city hospital and down to the basement’s Black ward. Doctors said his skull was fractured in two places but he would recover.

Rouse never got the chance. A group of white men invaded the ward one night and kidnapped Rouse. They hanged him from a hackberry tree, still clad in his hospital gown.

McKinney is part of an effort to create a memorial park in honor of Rouse on the same land where the hackberry tree stood. McKinney lobbied for historical markers at the park and the hospital building where his life was briefly saved.

TCU RRI - Who is Fred Rouse? www.youtube.com

“I see these historical markers around our city like acupuncture needles where we get to implant truth and history and twist them a little bit to change and balance the energies of our local sites,” he said wryly

Rescuing a swath of Texas Black history may seem daunting in a state where battles rage over how much schools should teach about slavery and the Civil War. But McKinney sees saving truth as his mission as an artist and a scholar.

“To place (Black) history at the center of our cultural memory resists racism,” McKinney said in the YouTube session. “Truth will set us free… The Earth will be a better place when we look back (at history) together.”

He has given lynching tour app users of all races a unique glimpse of a better world that they can experience together. When they get to the stockyards where Rouse was beaten and left for dead, the app shows a drawing of a mob descending over the real-life scene. The participant can swipe away the mob. The scene is replaced with a video of McKinney portraying Rouse, a white apron flung over his shoulder. Rouse walks down the cobblestone street lit by a blue and pink sunset.

In that alternate universe where racist violence can be stopped, Rouse walks home to his family.

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[Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the spokesperson for the Transform project.]