Bishop Poulson Reed

By Kirk Petersen

It’s been called the worst race massacre in American history.

Beginning on the evening of May 31, 1921, mobs of white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, rampaged through a relatively affluent Black neighborhood, torching more than 35 square blocks of the Greenwood District, sometimes known as Black Wall Street. Some of the white rioters were armed and deputized by city officials.

There were 39 confirmed deaths, but the actual toll is almost certainly higher. A 2001 state commission studying the riot concluded “it would not be unreasonable to estimate 150 to 300 deaths.”

Only one Black-owned building in the Greenwood District survives from that era: the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church, which was rebuilt atop its surviving basement after the riot.

In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic and serious racial conflict around the country, the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma has pledged a donation up to $50,000 to support Vernon Church’s food ministry, which despite its own financial struggles has distributed more than 200,000 meals to needy neighbors since the pandemic began in earnest in March.

Pastor Robert R.A. Turner, in the basement where parishioners hid in 1921

In late November, the Rt. Rev. Poulson Reed, the VI Bishop of Oklahoma, announced that the diocese’s annual Bishop’s Appeal will match all gifts made by the end of this year, up to $50,000, with the hope of providing $100,000 to the historic Black church. As this is being written, the diocesan website shows that $17,810 has been donated to the appeal.

The Rev. Dr. Robert R.A. Turner, the pastor of Vernon, said church membership has dwindled over the years because of demographic changes and development, and the church has “half a century of deferred maintenance.”

“Nonetheless, when COVID-19 hit the world, God spoke and instructed me to feed His people. This 135-member church with an 85% membership over the age of 65 pulled our meager resources together, trusted God, watched Him work, and now 7 months later we have given out over 200,000 meals,” Turner said, in a letter thanking the diocese.

In announcing the appeal, Reed said “Roughly half of the funds will help upgrade their kitchen, where the meals are prepared. The other half will help Rev. Dr. Turner and the congregation build a prayer wall for those who visit the church to learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.”

Reed took over as bishop diocesan in August, so this is his first Bishop’s Appeal. In years past, the appeal typically has benefitted diocesan ministries, but Reed told TLC by email: “As I talked with some folks about this year’s Appeal, we realized that we wanted to do something different, a bold gesture of hope and partnership in these difficult times. We believe that this is the beginning of a closer relationship with Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church and with Dr. Turner, their pastor.”

He added, “we want to support and amplify the ministries and voices of those who are making a difference in their communities, whether they are Episcopalians or not.”

The full name of Vernon Church’s denomination is the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but despite the word “episcopal” in the name, it is a thoroughly Methodist polity. They do, however, have bishops.