Opinion: The Freedom Center of Oklahoma City's much more than just a restoration or museum

The Freedom Center of Oklahoma City will not be a museum.

The board of directors is "adamant" about that, project director Christina Beatty told me the other day over coffee at Spiked: a Coffee Concept, at 1732 NE 23, around the corner just to the west of the historic center at 2609 N Martin Luther King Ave.

The Freedom Center will preserve history, but do much more than look back, she said.

"As caretakers of the historic Freedom Center building, we develop facilities and programs to preserve our history and work towards a world without racism and bigotry," it says at freedomcenterokc.org.

The emphasis is on educational programming, she said, especially for young people, in keeping with the historic impact of activist-educator Clara Luper and the NAACP Youth Council in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Freedom Center, privately owned and privately funded, will be part of the $26.8 million MAPS 4 Clara Luper Civil Rights Center.

Northeast OKC churches fought for civil rights then, defend them now

We were being neighborly. I had asked Beatty to coffee, not as a member of the working press, but as a working preacher.

As a part-time pastor of historic Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), 2301 NE 23, around the corner to the east from the center site, I have more than a passing interest. The Freedom Center and Trinity Presbyterian, among other historic Black churches in northeast Oklahoma City, are on similar missions.

COVID-19 set us back on celebrating the 60th anniversary of Trinity's founding with the merger of a white and African American congregation, in 1960. Then the omicron variant sent us back to Facebook Live for worship the first part of this year.

We've got our legs back, but some other things also got put on the back burner, so it will be 2023 before we do our own version of remembering the past with a public celebration, as we continue our own "work towards a world without racism and bigotry."

As I always say when telling people about Trinity: "1960! Before the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965!" It was the first, if not only, formally integrated congregation in the state, which got it on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019.

Churches were a big part — I'd say some of the main drivers — of the Civil Rights Movement then (and now), and their work and others' will be acknowledged at the Freedom Center, Beatty said. But not necessarily in static displays like in a museum. Exhibits are important, she said, but they just sit there if not actively interpreted and given context.

So expect more than the rescue and repair of the old NAACP Youth Council building, and more than a historic tourist attraction with the MAPS 4 Clara Luper Civil Rights Center.

The Freedom Center of Oklahoma City LLC selected as operating partner

"The facility will enhance the public’s understanding of Oklahoma City’s civil rights history and the significant role local efforts played in ending segregationist policies nationally," the city said recently in announcing The Freedom Center of Oklahoma City LLC as its operating partner for the larger project of which the Freedom Center will be the heart.

So much more than that, although it is still a real estate redevelopment project, too.

Los Angeles-based. Atelier Cory Henry is lead designer for the restoration, in partnership with OKC's Bockus Payne Architecture as architect of record. Thunder Team Construction is the construction manager.

“The Clara Luper Civil Rights Center will not only preserve history, housing an archive for historic documents and artifacts, but will also be a relevant contemporary resource for youth and adults serving as a community gathering place where all are welcome,” Beatty said. “The purpose of this significant center is to encourage continuous learning, foster civic engagement, build community and cultivate a sense of belonging.”

Speaking for the elders, members and friends of Trinity Presbyterian, let me just say:

Dear Freedom Center directors, supporters and friends, we at Trinity Presbyterian are proud to be neighbors and fellow workers in preserving the past, and in influencing, in our small way, the future of northeast Oklahoma City for the better.

Amen.

Senior Business Writer Richard Mize has covered housing, construction, commercial real estate and related topics for the newspaper and Oklahoman.com since 1999. Contact him at rmize@oklahoman.com. Sign up here for his weekly newsletter, Real Estate with Richard Mize.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Freedom Center in OKC, part of MAPS 4 Clara Luper Civil Rights Center