Reviving the renaissance: Raymond continues fight to preserve, celebrate all of Ardmore history
Just east of the train tracks on Main Street in downtown Ardmore sits an innocuous red brick building. But inside, across the street and even buried throughout the area are a number of Oklahoma’s “dirty little secrets,” parts of history forgotten or covered up through cultural erasure.
The building currently houses Gladiator Gym, a long-time fixture for Ardmore’s boxing community that will soon be the site of Ardmore's very own African American history museum. The museum will also include information detailing Ardmore’s Superfund site and its impact on Ardmore's Black community. Plans are also in the works to commission a mural on the building’s west-facing wall which will be visible to commuter train passengers passing through Ardmore and visitors to Ardmore’s Depot District.
The site was once a furniture store and may very well have been Ardmore’s first building, according to current owner Garry Raymond. A dilapidated building across the street is where the original Noble Brothers Hardware store was located after their initial venture in Carter County, a grocery store, burned during the great fire of 1895.
Twenty years later, a gas explosion would once again destroy much of what Raymond calls “original” Ardmore. Now, 105 years later, Raymond continues his efforts to bring attention to neglected parts of Ardmore’s history.
Ties to Ardmore
Raymond was born in Arizona after his parents migrated west looking for an opportunity. He said his family came to what is now Carter County on the Trail of Tears as slaves of the Native Americans that were forced into relocating to Oklahoma.
“Garry’s family, like mine, has been in Ardmore for over 150 years,” said Dr. Maurice O'Brian Franklin, historian, author and professor of public administration and policy at California State University Northridge. “His family, just like mine, came to Oklahoma as slaves of the Native Americans.”
Franklin is currently assisting Raymond with the African American Itinerary project, an initiative to recover, uncover and document the erased history of African Americans.
Raymond returned to Ardmore at 14. He attended Douglass High School until joining the first integrated class in the history of Ardmore City Schools.
“We went over to Ardmore High as a junior or a senior, I can’t remember exactly,” Raymond said. “But we were the first class to go over from Douglass. The climate was a whole lot like it is now. Some of the blatant racism and anger, Ardmore was a mess. It was pretty liberal on Main Street because they had clubs and head shops and all kinds of stuff. Ardmore was known for that.”
Raymond quickly found himself in the gym, taking to boxing with hopes of following in the steps of the greatest boxer of the time.
“Muhammad Ali was always my idol, so when I got here to Ardmore they started a boxing program at the YMCA. The kids told me about it so I went out to the Y,” Raymond said. “When I started boxing, it was a passion. Then I got approached by a recruiter, he talked to me about this, about that, about boxing for the United States and fighting in the Olympics. So I gave it a shot and I almost got there, but I didn’t make the Olympics.”
From there, Raymond joined the United States Navy before compiling a 12-4 record as a professional boxer.
To help support his family, Raymond began to train other fighters while continuing to pursue his own boxing career in Arizona.
“I started being around the kids and I discovered I had a passion for that,” Raymond said. “That’s when I started my first team. Then I started making a little money at it and getting hired as a recreation specialist in the summertime getting kids off the street. They had a lot of problems with gangs so I would go to the different gang members and get them boxing, then make truces. So it was kind of a big deal for them.”
Raymond ultimately returned to Ardmore, training fighters first in his back yard, then at Ardmore Middle School and in a gym on Lake Murray Drive, another near the old refinery and in an old church before eventually settling on his current location.
Raymond has trained at least 100 different fighters in the 40 years since his return to Ardmore, including Eric “Danger” Field, a two-time Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion and former cruiserweight contender.
Trouble with the law
Not long after returning to Ardmore, Raymond was arrested on charges of unlawful delivery of crack-cocaine. Raymond doesn’t deny the charges, but claims he was doing a favor for a friend which just so happened to coincide with an active task force operating in the area.
“James Clark, he’s an attorney, he saved my ass. Ardmore was fixing to hang me out to dry. I was facing 110 years on 11 counts,” Raymond said. “I’d still be in there today. James did some legal work for me, got it down to four-and-a-half years. When I hit the ground after four-and-a-half years, I took a different route. That’s when I started the renaissance.”
Clark had this to say about Raymond, “(He) was an outstanding boxer as a young man. He was possessed with a devastating right jab, a strong left hook, and great instincts for following up. If he hadn’t run afoul of the law, I felt he could have been a legitimate contender for the lightweight championship of the world. But the arrest and being ordered to serve time in jail ended that dream.
“Once paroled, Garry returned to Ardmore and organized several boxing clubs. Although he still had incredible ring skills, he taught those skills to young boys and men who had been in trouble with the law. I visited Garry’s east side boxing club often, watching him train young fighters. Taken off the streets, most made something of themselves, thanks to Garry Raymond. He’s one of the unsung heroes of Ardmore.”
With nearly 150 years of history in Southern Oklahoma largely ignored or mostly forgotten, the African American Itinerary looks to undo generations of historical erasures to recognize the rich historical and cultural impact African Americans have made on communities across the state.
“Every thing we are doing is the African American proverb called Sankofa; it means reaching back in order to go forward and the emblem is of a bird reaching back to pick up crumbs or pebbles that it dropped,” Raymond said. “In our lives we’ve had things that were significant, not then, but looking back now, you need the details to explain that significance and a lot of the people that had that information have passed away.”
For more than 20 years, Raymond has been working with city officials in various ways to clean up, restore and document the city’s east side.
“We had an explosion here in 1915, 105 years ago. Killed 22 black folk right here. There were 26 black businesses from the tracks to the HFV Wilson Center,” Raymond said. “That’s the reason the township was here. Back before 1880 this was known as that little Black African stronghold.”
Raymond said both Ardmore and Carter County were known by different names before railroad freight lines connected Dallas and Oklahoma City.
According to the “Oklahoma Encyclopedia of History and Culture,” Carter County was originally known as Pickens County which included the present-day cities of Ardmore, Duncan, Madill, Marietta and Sulphur, while extending almost as far as Chickasha. It was named after Edmund Pickens, a Chickasaw leader who helped negotiate the 1854 agreement by which the Chickasaws separated from the Choctaws and established their own nation, later being renamed after Capt. Ben W. Carter, a Cherokee who lived among the Chickasaw. The current county line structure was drawn up during the Sequoyah Constitutional Convention — an effort that sought to have the State of Sequoyah admitted to the Union — and adopted two years later when Oklahoma was admitted as a state.
“Ardmore was destroyed in 1895 by fire, then they built back. Then in 1915 they had a box car full of gas and somebody went out there and started hitting on it. People all around here were complaining about smelling gas, the gas fumes everywhere in about a quarter mile radius. And when he hit that and it sparked ... Boom. Everything,” Raymond said. “So they took a plow and they plowed back west and that was Main Street, even before the explosion. But they forgot about this old part of town and just built back west and pushed all of the rubble from the explosion back over here.”
While not old enough to have experienced the great fire or the explosion, Raymond doesn’t view Ardmore’s and Oklahoma’s past through rose-colored glasses.
“Real history is ugly and people don’t want to talk about it and feel guilty because of it,” Raymond said. “These things happened. They had lynchings here, they had hangings here. Do they tell you about it? No. Do they talk about it? No.”
According to the “Oklahoma Encyclopedia of History and Culture,” approximately 147 lynching deaths were recorded in Oklahoma from 1885 to 1930, noting that dozens more probably went unrecorded. These numbered 77 white, 50 black, 14 American Indian, one Chinese and five of unknown race. In the first phase of lynchings in Oklahoma, 1885 through 1907, most victims were whites, punished primarily as rustlers, "highwaymen," or robbers. After Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the overall number of lynchings declined but the victims were almost exclusively Black. More detailed information can be found at okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entryname=LYNCHING.
After his release from prison, Raymond continued to train fighters before founding the Eastside Renaissance, a movement to clean up the east side of Ardmore, which includes the Imperial Refinery Superfund site.
“I was here coaching and doing good things before (my arrest) but I just got caught up in it,” Raymond said. “But I ain’t a quitter. I’ve wanted to quit a whole lot of times, but I just refused to quit.”
While Ardmore has recently seen a significant amount of development, most of the new business and infrastructure projects have focused on primary traffic arteries throughout the city. The city’s Streetscape project, however, was extended east of railroad tracks, right in front of Raymond’s gym.
“It’s moving in a positive way, but what we have to do is get organized from within,” Raymond said. “ It ain’t about me, it’s about we. That’s what it’s about.”
The Eastside Renaissance project is rooted in the African American Itinerary, a nationwide effort to promote African American history that has largely been ignored, avoided or outright erased over generations.
“I think the concept, the idea is self esteem and self image,” said Franklin. “How one feels about themselves in the future and the future one sees is tied into their history. When black youth can see themselves in the future, when they can see possibilities then they see themselves as limitless.”
The planned mural for Gladiators Gym will play into this concept by featuring historic figures, including notable boxers as well as historic African Americans from Ardmore, and the contributions they’ve made to the community.
“The history itinerary project is something that can be tied into the schools, commerce, all the things happening in Ardmore,,” Franklin said. “We just recently commemorated Juneteenth. There are a lot of people in Oklahoma who went on to graduate college in Oklahoma who never even heard of that. Those are the kinds of fragments of African American history and fragments of American history that we are trying to put together."
Now pushing 70, Raymond is as active and energetic as ever. While he’s spent the majority of his life helping others in the ring and in life, he now finds himself needing help to see his Eastside Renaissance come to fruition. His museum needs a curator, funding and exposure to generate excitement for the project.
“With all the people around here that we could put on the mural we could change the way people think about Ardmore. Ardmore could not only be Oklahoma’s most historical city, it could be the mural city,” Raymond said. “We’ve already got some good murals. If people see this mural then I think they get inquisitive, and once they get inquisitive we can get together and we can really make it something.”
According to epa.gov, The Imperial Refining Company site located in Ardmore operated as a crude oil refining facility from 1917 until 1934. Due to a lack of regulations at the site, waste piles found nearly 75 years later were characterized as dry, asphalt-like tar mats associated with oil-contaminated soil on top of oil-stained clay. The waste piles contaminated soil and sediment with hazardous chemicals including arsenic and benzo(a)pyrene, both of which have been linked to the development of cancer and Lupus. The Environmental Protection Agency removed the site from the Superfund program’s National Priorities List in 2013 after beginning cleanup on the project in 2009. An estimated 130 residents lived within 200 feet of the site while an estimated 23,427 people lived within four miles of the facility when the site was selected for cleanup in 2007.
Katrina Higgins-Coltrain, EPA remedial project manager for the site, told The Ardmoreite in 2007, "Some of the waste found at the site could not be removed. These areas were under the highway, close to a high-pressure gas line that ran across the property and under the railroad. Waste in areas close to neighboring properties on the north is under a ‘significant’ slope that was considered unsafe to excavate."
Part of Raymond’s motivation for Eastside Renaissance was to draw attention to what he believes is “environmental racism” which prompted the 2011 scholarly publication “Chronotopic landscapes of environmental racism” by Ryan Blanton.
According to the EPA, 104,500 cubic yards of waste and soil and 1,700 cubic yards of sediment were removed from the site and shipped to an off-site landfill. In addition, for areas where waste remains in place, a clay barrier was constructed to mitigate migration and exposure to contaminants.