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Arts & Culture

Fort Worth's old Klan hall won't be a typical arts center. It'll be a marketplace, a healing space.

A brick building facade with four tall windows with broken window panes.
Jerome Weeks
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KERA
The Ellis Pecan company owned the hall for 50 years, and it's become a wreck. But the Klan built it as a symbol of power, the tallest building across the Trinity River from city hall.

The recently announced plan to re-purpose the old Ku Klux Klan hall on Fort Worth's North Side has been budgeted at $40 million. The aim is to turn it into a "cultural hub" unlike a typical community center or history museum.

That's because the hulking, red-brick building has been an embodiment of hatred and fear since Texas Ku Klux Klan Klavern #101 put it up in 1924. Its purchase by a collective of eight North Texas non-profit groups is the start of the hall's conversion into a center that'll give back to the same communities the Klan targeted: Black, Latino, immigrant, LGBTQ.

Their aim is "reparative justice."

Daniel Banks is chair of Transform 1012 North Main Street -- the collective that worked for two years to purchase the hall. He says their ideas for the project evolved over that time. For one thing, they thought they would include a history museum. But they dropped that idea after it became clear the National Juneteenth Museum will be built in Fort Worth. There's also a new African-American museum and cultural center being developed in town.

That's not to say there won't be historical displays inside, Banks said. It just won't be a primary purpose.

"When we got together with some of the other projects and realized what they're going to do," Banks said, "we knew we didn't need to fill that role."

Interior of Fort Worth Ku Klux Klan hall
Daniel Banks
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Facing the stage inside the KKK hall. After the Klan sold it in 1927, it became a civic auditorium and hosted boxing matches. The blue railings and platforms were installed by the former owner, the Ellis Pecan company.

The building's now The Fred Rouse Center for the Arts and Community Healing. Rouse was a Black butcher who was lynched in Fort Worth in 1921.

The new center will, in fact, contain a performance space - as many cultural centers do - as well as meeting rooms for coalition groups, including SOL Ballet Folklorico, The Welman Project and the Tarrant County Coalition for Peace and Justice.But the collective also plans to offer a safe space for LGBTQ youth. It'll establish a tool library for DIY classes, an artisan marketplace, affordable live/work spaces for artists-in-residence, a farmers' market - and more.

That sounds like a lot going on in a single building. But the Klan auditorium is cavernous. It's believed it once held seats for 2,000 people. The building is approximately three stories tall and covers 22,000 square feet. The entire plot of land it stands on is 1.3 acres.

Said Banks: "We've already had some organizations ask us when the building will be open that they can rent out for their own uses. "

Interior of Ku Klux Klan hall in Fort Worth as seen from the stage.
Christopher Connelly
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KERA
The reverse view: the interior of Ku Klux Klan hall, facing the front of the building on Main Street. Historian Richard Selcer and KERA's Jerome Weeks are standing on the stage.

The current timeline has the Fred Rouse Center opening in three years. But the building is in poor shape. Parts of the rusted, corrugated roof have collapsed with pieces littering the floor. Wiring and piping have decayed or been ripped out. Wooden stairs have deteriorated. The hall needs to be stabilized first.

To purchase the hall and get started upgrading and adapting it, Transform 1012 has already received funding from a range of sources, including Atmos Energy, the Rainwater Charitable Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

But Banks said, one outstanding feature of the center is not just what it aims to do. It's the way this project of adaptive re-use is being created and run. There aren't many cultural centers that have been established by a coalition of non-profit groups that set out to buy, transform and program a building with this kind of grim history, with these kinds of ambitions.

"We created this model ourselves," said Banks. "Because we wanted to be a model of what this would look like for others."

Side wall, interior, Ku Klux Klan hall in Fort Worth
Daniel Banks
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The tall windows, along the sides and the front of the KKK hall, were the building's primary mode of ventilation and lighting. Rainwater has puddled on the floor because of holes in the corrugated roof. The blue railings and platforms were installed by the Ellis Pecan company.

One member of Transform 1012 is the Opal Lee Foundation. The 95-year-old Opal Lee is known as the "grandmother of Juneteenth": As a Black activist, she led the successful push to establish that day as a national holiday, celebrating African-Americans' freedom from slavery.

"Lord knows we go through enough obstacles just trying to live," Lee said. "Here, with a building that was used for evil, we can turn it into something that's extremely good."

Opal Lee is ready for her foundation to use this former Ku Klux Klan hall -- to hold its own board meetings.