Bringing Truth to Light: Center for Public Secrets

By: Abigail Chow

Every city has its secrets. Tulsa has secrets. Lee Roy Chapman, a local historian and investigative journalist, made it his mission to uncover them. You can see the results of his work, along with much more, at the Center for Public Secrets.

Cornered on 6th and Peoria, where a semi-industrial district intersects with an arts and entertainment district, between low income housing and upmarket condos, the Center’s location stakes its intention to serve as a hub for storytellers, historians, artists, and musicians from all walks of life to document and explore our collective history. 

Stuart Hetherwood, Organizational Consultant of the Center and board member, described the Center as “a place for people to tell their hard hitting, sometimes dark, sometimes upsetting stories in an uncensored way where they can speak their truth in a way that’s totally outside of normal philanthropic limitations.” 

The Center’s website describes itself as “a sub-cultural institution that explores the hidden and neglected history of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and beyond.” In keeping with their mission, the Center for Public Secrets has hosted several recent events that have provided space and a platform for personal and cultural moments of expression and discovery: an exhibit called the “Art of Protest” featuring signs made for Black Lives Matter marches, the Trump Rally, and the Greenwood Centennial; an all-ages rock show performed by a band from Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences; and the inaugural art exhibition “Ancestor Veneration” by Afro Expressionist artist Kunle. The Center aims to provide conceptually-driven programming that falls into the four categories of fine art and photography, community storytelling, music (especially the experimental side of youth music, Hetherwood noted), and deep background history exhibits led by community leaders and local artists, journalists, and musicians.

The concept of Public Secrets emerged in 2008 as its founder, Lee Roy Chapman, a self-described “history recovery specialist” delved into Tulsa’s own past, including the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. 

The “Public Secrets” series grew out of the content Chapman was writing and creating for “This Land” magazine. His work has received national and international recognition. Rare books and artifacts he sourced have been acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, as well as the Yale, Duke, and University of Tulsa libraries. 

His work has had far-reaching results. In 2011, he reported that W. Tate Brady, a prominent businessman who was a founding father of Tulsa, had close ties to the KKK and was involved in the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The story was picked up by news outlets as varied as National Public Radio and The Guardian and ignited local campaigns to remove his name from numerous sites in Tulsa. In 2013, the Tulsa City Council renamed Brady Street, named for Tate Brady, to M. B. Brady Street, after a Civil War photographer, and later renamed the street Reconciliation Way in 2019. The Brady Arts District was renamed the Tulsa Arts District in 2017 after the business association originally resisted changing its name. Peter Mayo changed the name of the Brady Theater back to its original name, the Tulsa Theater, in 2019. And in September 2021, residents of one of Tulsa’s historic neighborhoods changed its name from Brady Heights to the Heights. 

After Chapman passed away in 2015, his sisters, Traci and Whitney Chapman, worked with his collaborators and colleagues to create and establish the Center for Public Secrets, a physical space that serves as a repository for his work that also seeks to honor his legacy by engaging the community and supporting the next generation of history recovery specialists. His video documentaries, archived on the Center’s website, capture his unique and engaging approach to teaching history and credit collaborators like Sterlin Harjo and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. 

Hetherwood offered several suggestions to Trojans who would like to get involved with Center for Public Secrets. 

“Join our newsletter and follow us on social media so you see the events that are happening,” said Hetherwood. He noted that the Center has a feature length documentary coming out soon but said it is too early to reveal further details.

Renting their space for private events and meetings supports the Center’s activities and operations.

Hetherwood also encourages people to reach out to them directly if they have an idea or concept for programming or if they’ve been looking for a home for a project that they think might have some public appeal and they just haven’t found the right space yet or found the right people to work with. 

“Everybody that is deeply involved in the Center is committed to Tulsa and committed to storytelling and building this trust within the community to really look inwardly at our city and build the place that we want to live,” said Hetherwood. “You have to create what you want to see here. We’re committed to honesty. We’re committed to inclusivity. And we’re committed to getting the skeletons out of the closet. We want to be self-aware about uncovering this history and dealing with it.”

“We want to grow the community,” said Hetherwood. “That’s why we exist.”
For more information on Center for Public Secrets, visit their website and social media to catch up with their latest explorations and revelations.

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