Control of Oklahoma City civil rights landmark in dispute
With a few pen strokes, activist Michael Washington claims to have taken control of the Freedom Center — Oklahoma City's only civil rights memorial.
But some in the community question Washington's self-proclaimed role as savior of the historic building.
The property, at 2609 N Martin Luther King, has been owned since 1969 by the nonprofit Freedom Center Inc, founded by Oklahoma City civil rights activist Clara Luper. But Luper and the two other civil rights activists she started the nonprofit with are dead. The organization has been inactive for years.
People on Oklahoma City's northeast side say it was Luper's dying wish that the building belong to the community that helped pay for it through donations and fundraisers like catfish dinners and beauty pageants.
On Dec. 1, Washington filed paperwork with the Oklahoma Secretary of State making him the registered agent for Freedom Center Inc. The designation basically means he is now able to receive all of the nonprofit's mail, tax forms and legal notices.
Although he doesn't have keys to the building, Washington says he now controls the property and has become the president of Freedom Center Inc.
"It's in nobody's name, it's owned by the Freedom Center, which is the community itself — the incorporators are all dead and gone," Washington said.
Washington said he plans to raise money from donations to restore the building to showcase the city's civil rights history.
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"I'm a fighter and I will see this through until I have no breath in my body," Washington said.
On Dec. 6, Washington gave a presentation on the Freedom Center's history before the Oklahoma City Historic Preservation Commission and asked for the property to be declared a historic landmark. The commission is expected to vote on the proposal in January.
Multiple people The Oklahoman spoke with say Washington has no legal right to the Freedom Center.
"Nobody appointed him to do anything," said Phillip Gates, who owns Gates Barbershop next door to the Freedom Center. The barbershop is on the same parcel of land as the Freedom Center. Gates has paid the property taxes on the Freedom Center in years past.
"My barbershop and the Freedom Center are like a married couple," Gates said.
Garland Pruitt, president of the NAACP Oklahoma City branch said Washington has never approached him about restoring the group's historic headquarters.
Oklahoma City Councilman John Pettis, who represents the city's northeast side, said he is "almost positive" that Washington has no legal claim to the property.
"I do believe that's absolutely false," Pettis said.
The Freedom Center's brick facade is crumbling and the roof leaks, but it is arguably the most important remnant of Oklahoma City's civil rights movement. The building was the headquarters of the NAACP Youth Council, led by Luper. The group led the 1958 sit-in at Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City.
Luper taught generations of neighborhood children at the Freedom Center on subjects ranging from public speaking, etiquette and Black history.
Today, plaques commemorating important moments in the civil rights movement are falling off the exterior of the building and several are missing. One side of the structure is surrounded in yellow caution tape and is in danger of toppling over.
Washington says he wants to restore the crumbling building, which has been shuttered since 2010.
"This should be a monument to the community," he said, spreading his arms wide and in front of the locked building. "People should be able to go inside and learn about their history."
Multiple people told The Oklahoman that Luper's daughter, Marilyn Hildreth, has long been the contact person for anything related to the Freedom Center.
"Who is Michael Washington? I don't know who that is," Hildreth said, when reached by phone.
Who is Michael Washington?
Washington, 59, is an activist with a reputation for giving fiery speeches at community meetings and sometimes being asked to leave those same meetings.
In 1977, Washington was convicted of armed robbery in Oklahoma County. He served nearly 35 years in prison before being released in 2011, according to inmate records.
At Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Washington filed more than 30 lawsuits against prison officials, court records show.
Over the past year, he has sued various Oklahoma City public officials and even a few librarians he feels have slighted him, according to court records.
In August, Washington filed a defamation lawsuit against Cathy O'Connor, president of the Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City after she sent him a letter banning him from visiting the organization's office except during public meetings.
According to court documents, O'Connor claimed Washington's actions on past visits to the office were "threatening" and she asked him to stay away from the office "to ensure workplace safety."
Washington is also suing Pettis for intentional infliction of emotional distress after the city councilman had him escorted out of a town hall meeting at local church.
O'Connor and Pettis both said they couldn't comment on the lawsuits, because the litigation is ongoing.
Washington is banned from entering the Ralph Ellison Library, 2000 NE 23, for a period of two years. Library staff had him arrested on a disorderly conduct complaint in June 2016.
Washington sued four library staff members for damage after the incident. The case is still pending.
According to a police report, Washington was arrested after staging a protest outside the library.
Washington "would get the crowd excited and encourage them to go inside the library and cause issues with the staff and patrons," according to the report.
The librarians also told police that Washington had "cussed out" staff there on more than one occasion.
Washington said his scuffle with the librarians was over a Juneteenth celebration he had organized there without permission from the library.
"I'm a fighter, and people know that," Washington said.
Washington says that he has tried to reach out to many people in northeast Oklahoma City about saving the Freedom Center.
"They were trying to let it lie dormant," Washington said. "We want them to come forward. I'm just an agent for the community."