By Clifford Summerhill, Special for wranglernews.com
As Tempe celebrated its sesquicentennial anniversary, the City Council voted to move forward with changing the names of several streets and landmarks after their namesakes were discovered to have ties to the Ku Klux Klan’s Tempe chapter.
After staff from the Tempe History Museum discovered that prominent Tempe ancestors paid dues to the Butte Klan No. 3 chapter of the KKK in the 1920s, the City Council heard arguments during a regular meeting from residents on both sides of the issue.
After a lengthy public comment period, the City Council voted to establish a special committee to look into the name changes.
Hudson Drive, Hudson Lane, Laird Street, as well as Hudson, Harelson and Redden parks all bear names of now-deceased Tempe leaders who were found to have paid dues to the KKK.
City Manager Andrew Ching will now be tasked with appointing an ad hoc committee that will discuss the issue. According to the city, the committee will include various Tempe groups, including the Neighborhood Advisory Commission, the Human Relations Commission, the African American Advisory Committee, the Tempe Tardeada Advisory Board, the Tempe Elementary School District and faith organizations.
“My Council colleagues and I agreed that an ad hoc committee of community members should be formed to examine this matter,” Tempe Mayor Corey Woods said. “The Council will consider the recommendations of the committee upon the completion of their work.”
While the City Council has the authority to change street names and city-owned property, it does not have the ability to rename schools. According to a press release, Tempe staff alerted the Tempe Elementary School District about the namesakes of Laird, Gililland and Hudson schools. The issue will be handled by the school district’s Governing Board.
“Bringing this issue forward for community awareness and consideration is the right thing to do,” Ching said. “Together we can acknowledge the past and make purposeful decisions that reflect our community values of equality and anti-discrimination.”
While the Council has decided to move forward with the ad hoc committee, not all Tempe residents are onboard with the idea of changing the long-standing names.
Ted Harelson, grandson of Tempe pioneer Henry Harelson, spoke at the City Council meeting on October 21 to defend his grandfather.
“With the case of Henry Harelson, this (accusation) is completely circumstantial,” Harelson said. “It’s a complete surprise to the surviving family.”
Harelson continued to share details related to the findings and argued that a single 100-year-old piece of paper is “flimsy circumstantial evidence to discredit a founding pioneer of Tempe, as well as other lifelong Arizona pioneers named Harelson.”
Doug Royse, a Tempe resident since his birth in 1945, believes the proposed name changes are a horrible decision.
“There is a tremendous cost (to changing the names),” Royse said. “For example, think of how many homes are on Laird Street and the cost to change bank statements, deductions and addresses.”
According to information that Royse has gathered, most of the proposed street and landmarks were named after second- or third-generation family members from the those named in the new findings.
“We have these great families that have taught schools, were superintendents and active in the community, and now they want to change their names,” Royse said. “This is one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.”
Robert Bowers, a descendant of the Redden family, also spoke out against renaming longstanding streets and landmarks.
Bowers stated that the historical ledgers do not prove anything about Redden and that the KKK was notorious for using deceptive tactics to draw in members.
“This board is assuming moral turpitude because people signed up for membership in an organization that, at the time, had not yet to do anything wrong and whose course was untraveled,” Bowers said in an email. “This renaming smacks of woke demagogues arbitrarily, capriciously abusing power in the cancel-culture frenzy.”
The original documents are archived at the Arizona Historical Society.
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