The intersection of DeBarr Avenue and Boyd Street. DeBarr Avenue is named for Edwin DeBarr, a former OU professor and KKK leader. (Dana Branham/The Daily)

The name of a former OU professor and KKK leader was struck from a campus building almost 30 years ago. Just across the street, his name remains.

The name of a former OU professor and KKK leader was struck from a campus building almost 30 years ago.

Just across the street, his name remains.

Dana Branham, enterprise editor

Aseem Nevrekar is tired of writing his address.

Nevrekar, an aerospace engineering doctoral student, has lived on DeBarr Avenue for six years. On a campus ghost tour, he learned of his street’s namesake: Edwin DeBarr, a prominent national Ku Klux Klan leader of his time and one of OU’s first four professors.

Nevrekar is one of many in Norman who thinks it’s time for the street name to go.

Nearly 30 years ago, DeBarr’s name was removed from “DeBarr Hall” — the building that’s now simply the “Chemistry Building” on the North Oval between Holmberg Hall and Old Science Hall. Three blocks away, however, his name remains.

Disaster struck Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12 when a woman was killed at a rally of neo-Nazis and white supremacists who wanted to prevent the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The tragedy spurred conversation around the country about removing monuments of Confederate leaders. Communities large and small are grappling with the same question: Whom do we choose to honor, and what do they say about us?

While Norman doesn’t have Confederate monuments, some members of the community have decided to focus on the closest thing to it here: DeBarr Avenue.

A renewed renaming effort

Breea Clark pulls out a folded piece of paper from within a stack of folders and papers covering her desk. It’s a petition urging property owners on DeBarr Avenue — a small stretch between Boyd Street and Duffy Street — to give their blessing to rename the street.

Instead of a signature, there’s just one word scrawled across the page.


A photocopy of a petition form mailed back to Breea Clark with only one word on it: "NEVER." Nineteen signatures from property owners on DeBarr Avenue would force the city to change the street name. (Dana Branham/The Daily)

Clark, a Norman City Council member who works in OU’s Academic Integrity department, decided to push for the street’s renaming. She kept the rejected petition form as a “souvenir.”

“I kept it as a reminder that some people are just irrational when it comes to things like this,” Clark said.

In March she began circulating a petition calling for the renaming of DeBarr Avenue, hoping to gain public momentum on the issue. After the tragedy in Charlottesville, the petition saw a resurgence.

“People are now aligning neo-Nazis, the Confederacy and the KKK all as one, and I agree with that,” Clark said. “It’s all things that we were in our past that we don’t want to be anymore.”

Despite nearly 1,400 signatures on Clark’s petition, it’s not the general public who gets to decide on whether the name goes or stays.

If 75 percent of the people who own property on and adjacent to DeBarr support a name change, it can happen, according to a 2008 policy adopted by the city.

There are 25 unique property owners on the street, so 19 of them would have to sign the petition, according to Norman director of public works Shawn O’Leary. Clark said she’s hit a dead end for now, with only around 50 percent of property owners in support of a name change.

Alternatively, the policy says a street name shall not be changed once it’s established, unless, after investigation by the city, it’s found to be “inappropriate,” though there’s no written procedure for determining that inappropriateness.

OU student government leaders have called for the city to change the name through a resolution passed by the Undergraduate Student Congress and Graduate Student Senate.

Both the resolution and Clark’s petition call for the street to be renamed Henderson Street in honor of OU professor George Henderson.

Henderson, one of OU’s first black professors and the pioneer of its human relations program, said he didn’t seek the honor, but the removal of DeBarr’s name could signal progress for Norman.

“If by chance, a street is named after me, it conceivably could connote reconciliation in the area of race and ethnicity. It might imply that this is a community of not only cultural diversity, but also inclusion,” Henderson said. “If the name could do that, have those associations, then I would be honored. I would be privileged. I would be grateful.”

DeBarr died in 1950. Henderson set foot on OU’s campus for the first time in 1967. He first learned of DeBarr from another professor.

“I don’t know who the professor was, but he was knowledgeable about university history,” Henderson recalled. “Just in passing conversation, he said, ‘You know if DeBarr was still involved in the university, you wouldn’t be here.’

“So I say, ‘Rest in peace, DeBarr.’”

1921 Sooner yearbook dedication to Edwin DeBarr
The 1921 Sooner yearbook dedication to Edwin DeBarr. Its last line reads: “In the classroom, on the campus, or in his fraternal activities around the state, ‘Daddy DeBarr’ is respected and esteemed.” (Dana Branham/The Daily)

Who was DeBarr?

On Aug. 29, 1892, Edwin DeBarr arrived in Norman. It was a busy first day: He wrote in his diary that he got into town at 3 a.m., went to bed at 4 a.m. and met with then-OU President David Ross Boyd at 9 a.m.

He built OU’s chemistry and pharmacy schools from the ground up, and he taught dozens of classes — from biology to German.

DeBarr is a key figure in professor emeritus David Levy’s “University of Oklahoma: A History,” which chronicles OU’s beginnings.

“Among the four members of the first faculty, one was a strident racist,” a page of the book reads.

The book includes an excerpt from a 1935 interview, where DeBarr spoke candidly of his irrational fear of black people — the first black person he ever saw, he said, “scared him into ‘convulsions.’”

Still, he was revered by his students. The 1921 Sooner yearbook is dedicated to him: “In the classroom, on the campus, or in his fraternal activities around the state, ‘Daddy DeBarr’ is respected and esteemed.”

His involvement in “fraternal activities” was extensive: he was the grand dragon of Oklahoma in the KKK until 1923, according to a “Chronicles of Oklahoma” magazine article by Levy about DeBarr. From there, he became the KKK’s national chaplain.

“The Klan in Oklahoma did the things that the Klan did anywhere else, but perhaps more of them,” Levy writes in the article. “By one estimate, in fact, Oklahoma’s KKK outdid all other state Klans in outright ferocity.”

At the same time, DeBarr’s involvement at OU was extensive. He was promoted to vice president of the university in 1909 — a symbolic title, mostly, but he would occasionally stand in as acting president. He was the longest-serving professor at OU at the time.

An invitation to the dedication of DeBarr Hall — OU's chemistry building — in 1917. The name "DeBarr" was removed from the building in 1988. (Dana Branham/The Daily)

Concerns had been raised about DeBarr’s KKK ties before, but he was not pushed out of the university until 1923. The final straw was not his views toward African Americans, but rather his anti-Catholic commencement speech at a high school.

Still, he was allowed to keep his lab at the university, and he went on to be the city’s “health officer.” He didn’t seem to live in “isolation and disgrace,” Levy’s article notes. The university even invited him back in 1950 as the homecoming parade marshall.

He died in December 1950 of a heart attack while recovering from being beaten with a tire iron by his granddaughter’s husband that October.

A newspaper clipping from The Daily on April 22, 1988, when students held a demonstration to push for OU to remove DeBarr's name from the chemistry building.

Removing DeBarr

Twice in the 1980s, students led efforts to have DeBarr’s name removed from the chemistry building. The second, in 1988, was successful.

David Slemmons, a student leader of the charge to remove DeBarr’s name from the chemistry building in 1988, learned about DeBarr from a professor. He pored over newspaper clippings and records from the Southern Poverty Law Center that showed DeBarr’s KKK involvement.

“The problem before is that they really didn’t know much about DeBarr. I started looking, and there was very little to be found,” Slemmons said. “So we had to do it on our own, from scratch.”

Slemmons described a huge demonstration on the South Oval in April of that year — hundreds of students gathered, a Confederate flag was burned and they marched to DeBarr Hall, past the president’s office. Students hung a hood over DeBarr’s portrait in the chemistry building.

With a background in student government from his previous schooling, Slemmons and other Students for a Democratic Society members took the issue up through the channels of student government, eventually making it to the Board of Regents.

That July, the regents voted 6-1 to remove the name from the building. Sam Noble, an OU regent at the time, was the only dissenter, calling the debate “a tempest in a teapot.”

Across the street from campus, DeBarr’s name was still there as it is today.

“At that point, 90 percent of the people were against (changing it), so there was no point in even bringing it up,” Slemmons said. “We did not even address it.”

Confronting history

To Clark, the answer is obvious, given DeBarr’s history.

“If we were open with it and everyone was cool with it as part of our history, fine. But we’re not! We don’t talk about it — we practically hide it — and when it comes up, it divides our community,” Clark said. “We need to be done with it.”

But the answer isn’t so obvious to everyone, including people who live on the street. Clark said property owners have raised concerns about not getting their mail or business owners having to change brochures and websites. Others around the community have pondered if the name change would be “erasing history” — one of the same arguments against removing Confederate monuments.

Levy, who has researched DeBarr’s life through his work as OU’s historian, said the question of removing DeBarr’s name and removing Confederate monuments requires the same type of judgment.

“How horrendous, how serious, how despicable was the offense? And how meritorious, how worthy and how honorable was the contribution which led to the awarding of the honor in the first place?” Levy said. “Then those two things have to be a balance.”

Still, it’s not cut and dry, he said.

“People aren’t perfect. They do bad things and they do good things, and if you’re waiting to name something for someone who has never done a bad thing, you’re going to wait a long time,” Levy said. “I can show you quotations from Abraham Lincoln, how blacks should not marry with whites and how whites are superior, and it would be a crime, I think, to remove Lincoln’s name from everything.”

Where do we draw the line, then?

“You’re drawing it when you change the street. Don’t worry about it. We always change the lines,” Henderson said. “Good gracious, if that’s all that we have to worry about, when I put it within my bag of concerns, it’s minor. What’s next? Who knows? Let’s get past this one.”

For Henderson, arguments of “erasing history” simply can’t be reasoned — especially when many students don’t even know DeBarr’s history, he said.

“There’s nothing logical or rational about hatred. And there’s nothing logical or rational about bigotry,” he said. “There simply isn’t.”

The corner of DeBarr Avenue and Boyd Street, facing OU's campus. (Dana Branham/The Daily)

For Nevrekar, the aerospace engineering doctoral student from India who’s lived on DeBarr for six years, changing the name is a question of respect.

“(The name) reminds you of the horrors that the KKK and some other organizations created for people of color not very long ago,” he said. “It basically says, ‘Hey, you know what? You’re not welcome here. We don’t respect you enough or your history enough to change the name.’”

The street gives no suggestion of its controversy — it looks and feels like any other street near campus. Walking north, the sounds of bustling Campus Corner grow softer. On a warm September evening, the street is calm, punctuated by two sets of two friends, one set at each end of the street. Both pairs chat, tossing a football back and forth.

Someone’s grilling in their backyard, and the smell wafts through the air.

The street is home to families who’ve lived there for decades and to students who’ll only stay a few months.

Lourya Winn, an undecided sophomore, lived on DeBarr Avenue for about a year. When she moved there, she had no idea whom her street was named for. A reporter stopped her one day while she was walking her dog and explained the street’s history.

“I do look at it from a different point of view because I’m African-American,” Winn said. “What I took from that was mixed emotions.

“When you’re looking at the surface, he doesn’t seem like a bad person. He’s done so much for the university,” she said. “But then, you look behind the curtain and you see what else he was doing.”

Sophomore Lourya Winn stands outside the chemistry building on the North Oval. Winn lived on DeBarr Avenue for about a year. (Dana Branham/The Daily)

Correction: This article was updated at 10:24 a.m. Sept. 14 to reflect the correct major for Aseem Nevrekar,  which is aerospace engineering.