Edwin DeBarr and the University of Oklahoma Chemistry Building
DeBarr Hall, the University of Oklahoma's original Chemistry Building was built and dedicated to Edwin DeBarr in 1917. DeBarr was also a leader of the Oklahoma Ku Klux Klan, and when that connection was discovered in the 1980s, students demanded that his name be stripped from it and it became the Old Chemistry Building.
Backstory and Context
The life of Dr Edwin DeBarr was one of full dedication to his work. He was a remarkable man, highly esteemed, and appreciated for his qualifications and contributions as one of the very first professors at the early University of Oklahoma. He established the university's school of pharmacy and school of petroleum engineering, and became the Vice President of the university in 1909. As a gesture of appreciation for his numerous contributions, the University of Oklahoma Chemistry Building, on the North Oval, was built and dedicated to him in 1917.
Edwin DeBarr witnessed the rebirth of a Ku Klux Klan that underwent drastic changes. Now organized to take control over the legislature, the Klan spread its new political ideologies over the state of Oklahoma like dandelions would spread their seeds in a field. Dr. DeBarr, being a man of some esteem in the University of Oklahoma and one of the most prominent Klansman, found himself to be an active partisan of the political machinery set by the KKK from 1921 to 1923.
In 1922, the OU Board of Regents censured DeBarr for his KKK activities. The censures against him occurred in a time where people were discouraged from taking active parts in the pro and anti-KKK conflict. Yes, the KKK was a huge organization counting one out of every ten adult males in 1923; yes, its ideologies were against the society’s ethics values. It is also true that DeBarr undertook political support and attack as a Grand Dragon of the KKK. However he was only dismissed in 1923. The famous decree of June 1923 that pushed him out of the University of Oklahoma, and so from teaching and acting Vice President, was a matter of politics. For their part, activist students in the 1980’s considered his racist white supremacist background serious enough to erase the name of the chemistry building. Not surprisingly, African American students from the University of Oklahoma found themselves to be the most active group in denouncing the racial attitudes of the hooded member. Therefore, in 1982, the OU Board of Regents turned down a proposal to rename the building.
This removal policy, which involved a lot of students, the NAACP and local Black Student Association, was not without opposition. In the 1980’s, the President of the University of Oklahoma William Banowsky recognized that DeBarr was a complex character. During his discourse to keep the name DeBarr Hall, he recommended to take into account the historical perspective. After having described the context in which DeBarr was dismissed, he stated: “Should he be tried twice for the same shortcoming? After the passing of half a century, it is inappropriate to attempt to rewrite history.”. Students didn’t try to rewrite history but to set out what they thought to be DeBarr’s actual beliefs about other people: discriminating and oppressive.
The name was finally removed in 1988, 38 years after the death of Edwin DeBarr.
- University of Oklahoma Students Yearbook. The Sooner. 1921. DeBarr, Edwin, Vertical File, University Archives, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries.
- Neuringuer Sheldon. “Governor Walton’s War on the Ku Klux Klan: An Episode in Oklahoma History, 1923 to 1924”, Chronicles of Oklahoma 45 (Summer 1967).
- White, Lida. “Interview with Edwin DeBarr”. March 1935, from the Western History Collections, Lida White Papers, Box 9.
- Old black and white transparent picture of the Chemistry Building at a time when it was still named "DeBarr Hall". Chemistry building, University of Oklahoma, picture n°906, Western History Collections.
- University of Oklahoma Board of Regents. “Minutes”, from the Digital Collections of the University of Oklahoma. June 10, 1982. <https://digital.libraries.ou.edu/regents/>