In 1921, white union workers at the meatpacker Swift & Company in Fort Worth, Texas, went on strike. Fred Rouse—a Black man with a family—was hired as a butcher by the company to replace those striking. On a December morning, he walked to the city’s Stockyards for work, crossing picket lines and racial lines. Walking home that night, he was attacked by strike agitators and left for dead. Five days later, while recuperating in the hospital, a mob broke into his room. That night Rouse became the only reported Black victim of lynching in Fort Worth, according to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching in America project.
At the time, Texas was home to one of the largest chapters of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. The white supremacist group’s Fort Worth headquarters—or “Klavern”—was a tall, cavernous brick auditorium at 1012 North Main Street, completed in 1924. The ground floor alone is 22,000 square feet, with an auditorium designed to fit 2,000 people.
The KKK sold the building in 1927, and over the years, as it passed through several owners, its insides decayed, though its imposing exterior has endured, casting a long shadow over the town. But in the coming years, the building is going to start looking very different when it becomes host to a new arts center in Rouse’s name that will attempt to account for the site’s ugly history while also acting as a space for renewal.
In June 2019, Adam W. McKinney, a trained ballet dancer and a professor at TCU College of Fine Arts, and his partner, Daniel Banks, learned that the building’s then owners had filed an application with the city to have it demolished. McKinney and Banks had already imagined its second life as a hub for art and healing that would serve the city where Rouse’s descendants still live.
The idea, Banks said, was to bring “groups together that were frequently pitted against one another, or siloed and not in contact. We live in a city where cultural groups are broken up by geography as well. So, we had to talk not only about intergroup relationships but intragroup relationships.”
As McKinney and Banks began to conceive their proposed center, Fort Worth’s Historic and Cultural Landmark Commission imposed a six-month delay of demolition on the building, during which the owners were required to explore alternatives with interested parties. Meanwhile, McKinney and Banks began meeting with council members to garner support for the repurposing. By September, seven other Fort Worth–based cultural organizations and entities representing groups once targeted by the Klan had joined the campaign. Fred Rouse III also joined the board, as a representative of the family. Synergy was rising and the scope of the project was expanding.
The coalition, which calls itself Transform 1012 N. Main Street, had the backing of state and local branches of NAACP, as well as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and had even achieved nonprofit status. Grants trickled in from the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment of the Arts. That December, Transform 1012 acquired the building with financial support from the former owners and the Rainwater Charitable Foundation. Once renovations are complete, the auditorium will reopen as the Fred Rouse Center for Arts and Community Healing.
The city of Fort Worth, a 40-minute drive from Dallas, is in flux. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it was the fastest growing large city in America between 2010 and 2020. That’s an average increase of some 20,000 new residents annually. It can be called a global majority city. In 2020, around 35 percent of the population identified as Hispanic, and 19 percent identified as Black. Those numbers are expected to rise in the next decade.
The city has several celebrated art museums—Kimbell Art Museum, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth—all of which have responded, to some degree, to the nationwide push to better engage with historically underserved communities. But there are gaps in the city’s arts infrastructure, Transform 1012 contends.
Román Ramírez, a leader of the Mexican folk dance company SOL Ballet Folklórico and Fort Worth native, pointed out that there are too few performing art spaces, prompting emerging artists to decamp for Dallas or abandon the field.
“The community in general was in need of spaces that were democratic,” Ayesha Ganguly, the founder of the Fort Worth–based community outreach group Window to Your World, said. “Right from the beginning our philosophy is asking people what they desire from a space like this. Does [Fort Worth] want a space to bring in groups to participate at reasonable class prices compared to the larger spaces that are inaccessible to them? Do they want creative outlets that are beyond traditional modes of storytelling?”
The Fred Rouse Center’s facilities will include a state-of-the-art performance space, exhibit spaces dedicated to social justice and civil rights artwork, and affordable live and work studios for artists-in-residence.
“How inspiring it will be for one of my students to look up and see a ballet class, or look and see art displayed, it can open their minds to show them that they can do that,” Ramírez said.
Life skills like leadership workshops and services for LGBTQ+ youth will also be offered. They’ve even imagined an outdoor urban agriculture to address food deserts in historically Black and Brown Fort Worth neighborhoods, as well as an artisan marketplace.
The center also addresses a more existential concern of what can be done with contested monuments. The year after Transform 1012 was founded, America experienced the largest, sustained civil rights actions since the 1960s.
“I don’t think Fort Worth is an anomaly,” said McKinney, who also leads the education-centered nonprofit Tarrant County Coalition for Peace and Justice. “I think that our country and our world has not reckoned with histories of racism and slavery, which drove colonialism. We are feeling the vestiges of that history locally, regionally, certainly nationally and internationally.”
The debate around Confederate statues and physical markers of white supremacy wasn’t new in 2020, but the Black Lives Matter movement intensified the need for resolution. Throughout the country statues were toppled by legislative or civilian action; they’re still falling. According to data collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 monuments linked to the Confederacy were removed from Texas land last year 2021. The other side says leave them untouched. The Fred Rouse Center, which is set to open in 2025, suggests reimagination as the way forward.
Inside the auditorium is a custom-built stage that was once host to racist Klan pageantry, such as minstrel games and rallies. Few would judge Transform 1012 for tearing that stage down amid renovations, but the team hopes it will serve aspiring LGBQT and BIPOC dancers and performance artists in Fort Worth, remaking the stage as a renewable source of cleansing artistic energy.
“We believed, and still believe, it is inappropriate to demolish the building because we felt that a history of pertaining to racism, racial terror violence, and white supremacy would be lost,” McKinney said. “In so doing, the reoccurrence would be that much more easily reproducible.”