The Norman City Council will consider renaming DeBarr Avenue, a street bearing the name of Ku Klux Klan member and former University of Oklahoma professor Edwin DeBarr.
At the end of a four-hour meeting on Tuesday night, the council voted unanimously to pass a resolution condemning racism and agreeing to review the city’s street renaming procedure. The resolution was a response to the efforts of local activists calling for DeBarr Avenue to be renamed.
The resolution calls for the city of Norman to reject “all forms of racism, bigotry, and hate” and to acknowledge racism’s impact on African-Americans and other minorities in the area.
It also calls for the City Council to review its policies on renaming streets at the next meeting of the council’s Oversight Committee on November 8. Currently, the process to rename a street requires a petition with the signature of 75 percent of property owners on a street.
The measure is not legally binding. But members of the council said it was an important declaration of intent.
“Your City Council is saying to you, ‘we’ve heard you, we think this is important, we think the name needs to be changed.’ Let us do it in a way that it will work as we move forward in the future,” said Norman Mayor Lynne Miller.
The vote followed a public comment period that lasted over two hours. Speakers included Norman residents and representatives from the Cleveland County Democratic Party, the University of Oklahoma student government and Black Lives Matter OKC.
Many speakers identified themselves as African-American or Native American. All of them argued in favor of renaming DeBarr Avenue. Several accused the council’s resolution of not going far enough to acknowledge Norman’s role in past and current racism.
Some recalled a past when Norman was a “sundown town”--a place where African-Americans could not safely stay at night. Others recounted their personal experiences with racism.
Deon Osborne, a senior at OU, described being bullied for being African-American as a child and on campus. He asked members of the City Council to put aside defensive feelings about being called racist.
“Doubling down in defensiveness over a label is counterproductive to your own growth as fully conscious human beings, and is counterproductive to the inclusivity goals of this community,” he said.
George Henderson, a professor of human relations at the University of Oklahoma, said he and many of his family members had been victimized by Klan violence.
“When people say changing the name of DeBarr Avenue is too costly for the owners of the properties located there, I say to them, not changing the tainted street’s name is too costly for the city of Norman, that says it has a reputation of being a racially inclusive community,” said Henderson, who is African-American.
The City Council also unanimously approved amendments to the resolution that were made at the suggestion of activists supporting the name change. The amendments were a more explicit condemnation of DeBarr and his racist values, calling them “inconsistent with and contrary to the stated purposes of equality and nondiscrimination in the city’s civil rights ordinance.”
The amendments also asked the city to express an “intent to engage in a deliberate policymaking process” involving property owners and residents of DeBarr Avenue, as well as any interested citizens.
Ashley McCray, a local activist and doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma, said she was satisfied with the council vote. She said it would serve as a starting point for more activism regarding Land Run reenactments and Norman’s legacy as a sundown town. “We’ll definitely be continuing to push the city to actually live by its motto, which is that it is an inclusive and welcoming community,” she said.
This is not the first time Edwin DeBarr’s legacy has sparked debate in the local community. In the 1980s, activists at the University of Oklahoma successfully petitioned to remove DeBarr’s name from a campus building. The controversy reignited earlier this year, after City Councilwoman Breea Clark of Ward 6 started a petition on Change.org to change the name of DeBarr Avenue.
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