The Bryant Center at N.E. 23rd Street and Interstate 35 was a community center for the city’s African-American population. Martin Luther King Sr. and Clara Luper spoke there in its heyday. Residents gathered to talk and share fellowship. Gamblers traded faded bills and rolled worn dice.
It was the gambling that put an end to the place.
“It got shut down as a gambling ring,” said Justin Moore.
Now, the Bryant Center sits empty and abandoned ” one of hundreds of old, forgotten places in Oklahoma that are full only of peeling paint, crumbled roofs and distinctive history.
Moore and Cody Cooper are two of a handful of urban explorers on a mission to examine these spots as part of the organization Abandoned Oklahoma. They call themselves “urban archeologists,” with one of the largest databases of abandoned places in the nation.
Abandoned Oklahoma not only uncovers the whereabouts of old sites, but the stories behind them. For them, urban exploration is a journey into Oklahoma’s past and a way to preserve the memories that built the buildings crumbling with age.
“Every building has a history,” Cooper said. “There’s something so beautiful to be in a place where time has stopped. It’s amazing what people left behind. In some cases, it’s family photos. In abandoned schools, the desks still sit in a row as if waiting for students.”
Cooper and Moore began seriously documenting such places two years ago, although they have been exploring longer. In many cases, they are given permission by current owners to pick through the memories. In other cases, owners are not found. They never enter sites illegally, they said, and take nothing but photographs.
“We forget the many stories told in decrepit old buildings,” Moore said. “My first experience doing this was an old mansion that you can actually see from the road here in Oklahoma City. It was snowing at the time, and the asphalt driveway was covered already in grass. You’re just walking through the woods, and suddenly, there’s this huge stucco mansion right in the middle of the woods. You just want to figure out what happened there.”
Through their website, http://www.abandonedok.com, the two have discovered that fans worldwide share their passion.
“When we started the website, we never thought it would be interesting to others,” Moore said. “But, we get hundreds of visitors. I think people want to do what we do, want to know about the old places.”
Some hold facets of the state’s past that very few even remember ” like the Chilocco Indian School in Newkirk, built in 1884. Throughout its decades, American Indians were taught to assimilate into American culture.
“Chilocco was one of the original Indian schools that were built to teach Native Americans how to be ‘productive’ ” like how to use the telephone, how to speak English, how to drive automobiles,” Cooper said. “It was its own city. After we posted about Chilocco, we started getting posts from people who used to be in the school.”
Rachel Mosman, a photo archivist at the Oklahoma Historical Society, loves Abandoned Oklahoma’s mission.
“Our history includes the structures in our state. It encompasses our identity, and it defines us,” she said. “I think people appreciate what Cody and Justin do. They call attention to the structures in Oklahoma and the stories behind them.” “Heide Brandes
photo/Cody Cooper and Justin Moore stand at the abandoned Bryant Center. Photo/Mark Hancock