Photo of Vernon AME Church, in 1919, courtesy of pastor Robert Turner.
In 1777, Richard Allen converted to Methodism. In 1780, Stokely Sturgis agreed to let Allen hire himself out in order to earn money to purchase his freedom for $2000. In addition to doing manual labor, Allen began to preach at Methodist churches in Delaware and neighboring states. In 1786, Allen paid his last installment to Sturgis and became free. Under the leadership of Allen, his congregation was able to buy a blacksmith shop in Philadelphia on 6th and Lombard St., which became Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church and is still standing today, making it not only the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the nation but the oldest church property in the country to be continuously owned by African Americans.
In its early days, the new ministry was limited to the larger cities, except for smaller towns that were predominantly Black. The Colored Methodist Church (which later became the Christian Methodist Episcopal, or C.M.E. Church) organized in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1870. The 200,000 black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, transferred their membership to this denomination.
The A.M.E. movement spread from the Philadelphia area into the South, and then westward after the Civil War, largely due to the work of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who also was a political advocate in the South, mainly Georgia. During this time, many Black families—children and grandchildren of slaves from the South (Alabama, Mississippi, etc.) as well as Black freedmen —were moving to what was then known as Indian Territory (during this time the Territory had as many as 50 “All Black Towns”), and brought their religion with them.
David & Milley Franklin, parents of one of Greenwood’s most prominent attorneys, Buck Colbert (B.C.) Franklin, helped establish one of the first CME churches in the new Territory in the summer of 1886. Though David Franklin was staunchly Baptist, his wife Milley and her family belonged to the CME church. Her brother and Rev. Pinkard were working to establish CME churches in the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. The family convinced Salem Baptist Church near Paul’s Valley to host their first meetings before establishing a church building of their own.
In 1890, Rev. J.C. Chrisburg founded St. Paul AME Church in Guthrie, OK. There was a total of 85 listed on the St. Paul AME church roll and 35 attended Sunday school. The first sermon was delivered at the current location, 602 E. Vilas, in June 1889.
By 1911 an Annual Conference formed that would later split into the Muskogee Conference and the Oklahoma Conference. Methodist work with African Americans in Oklahoma did not experience the unity the whites and Indians enjoyed after the 1939 unification. Even with the newly organized African American denominations, many blacks opted to remain members of the Methodist Episcopal Church and formed the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church. When the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968, the Central Jurisdiction was abolished, the churches moving under the care of the Oklahoma Annual Conference.
Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church
Vernon AME Church in Tulsa began as a one-room house at 549 N. Detroit Ave., founded in 1905 by Rev. J.E. Roy. The church was moved to Gurley Hall at 114 North Greenwood Avenue in 1906. Outgrowing the space, the church moved again to Barksdale Hall on East Archer. During the first three years, the membership grew from the original eight members, to dozens, and then almost a hundred, prompting the church to begin a new building project at Hartford and Archer streets during Rev. Devers’ one-year tenure.
The building at Hartford and Archer was completed under Reverend G. H. Burton and renamed Burton Chapel by the 71-member congregation in 1907. Mrs. Carrie Peck, J.J. Byrd, and Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, Tulsa’s first black physician, organized a Sunday school.
The present site of Vernon was purchased in 1908 for the sum of $290, with a down payment of $100 made by the trustees. The building was named Vernon AME Church in honor of Registrar of the Treasury, W. T. Vernon, who was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The original Vernon building was a simple one-story structure, completed during the tenure of Rev. James. A. Johnson.
Rev. C.R. Tucker began serving as the pastor of Vernon in 1914. He was as visionary as he was passionate. He had the original structure torn down to build a grand three-story structure, beginning with a sturdy brick basement. Work started on the upstairs section of the church in 1919. The previous year, during a trip to St. Louis, Rev. Tucker contracted the Spanish Flu. By 1921, the basement and first two stories were completed, but most of the structure was destroyed in the Greenwood Massacre. Only the outer brick of the first floor and the basement survived. Tucker left Tulsa after the Massacre and did not return.
By 1911 an Annual Conference formed that would later split into the Muskogee Conference and the Oklahoma Conference. Methodist work with African Americans in Oklahoma did not experience the unity the whites and Indians enjoyed after the 1939 unification. Even with the newly organized African American denominations, many Blacks opted to remain members of the Methodist Episcopal Church and formed the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church. When the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968, the Central Jurisdiction was abolished, the churches moving under the care of the Oklahoma Annual Conference.
The task of picking up the pieces after the massacre and rebuilding was given to Rev. W.C.B. Lewis, who arrived in the summer of 1921 and served as pastor until the end of that year. Immediately after the destruction of Greenwood Avenue and Black Wall Street, the Vernon congregation began growing a building fund of $1,100 to rebuild the structure. During that time, its membership doubled from 200 congregants to 400 congregants.
For Greenwood, the swift rebuilding of Vernon, as well as establishments such as John & Loula Williams’ building at the corner of Greenwood & Archer, and the Williams’ Dreamland Theatre represented resilience and hope that the neighborhood would continue no matter the obstacles. Even as it was being reconstructed, the church served as an event space, hosting the graduating class of Booker T. Washington school, and a reception for Maurice Willows of the Red Cross in January of 1922 to thank him for his service in support of the rebuilding of Greenwood after the Massacre.
According to Tulsa Daily Legal News in August of 1922, a building permit was granted to rebuild the chapel at a cost of $3,500. As a way to raise funds from the congregation, the church constructed stained glass windows with the names of the families which contributed to the rebuilding campaign. The main church building was finally completed in 1928. The entire cost of rebuilding was $17,400, which was secured via a mortgage with the U.S. Savings and Loan Association. When the church was finally completed, it came back bigger, with more seating, nicer furniture, and with hundreds more in attendees.
By 1940, the membership had grown to over 800 and a neon welcome sign was erected as a beacon of hope. On Mother’s day, May 10, 1942, the church celebrated the paying off of its debt by hosting a ceremony to burn the church’s mortgage papers. Dr. R.T. Bridgewater officiated the ceremony.
Rev. Ben H. Hill was perhaps Vernon’s most dynamic and influential pastor. He served not only the church, but the community as a whole. He became an editor at the Oklahoma Eagle and later served in the state legislature.
Of the Rev. Ben Hill, journalist and author Ann Patton said, “He would drop by the Eagle to write his editorials while I was there, and I count as golden the time I was able to spend with him. He was a beautiful soul, at once kind and loving yet tough and fearless when fighting for the needy and forgotten.”
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tulsa Model Cities was implemented, carving the northeast corner of the Inner-Dispersal Loop (IDL) and Highway 244 through Greenwood. The neighborhood suffered tremendous losses in terms of residents, land, and the great prosperity Greenwood enjoyed for forty years. Yet while its membership dwindled, Vernon remained.
In 2000, Mayor Susan Savage proposed using the city’s capital improvement funds to convert Vernon AME into a museum. Ultimately the leadership of the church rejected the idea, and so did the City Council. In 2002, Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation organization, proposed that the city purchase the church as part of a plan to designate the site part of the National Park Service. This plan failed as well. In addition, Greenwood’s leaders attempted twice and failed to build a memorial for the victims of the 1921 Massacre.
Today, Vernon stands as the only structure in Greenwood that pre-dates the 1921 Massacre. The building is a symbol of resilience, hope, and the continued work for social justice. In 2018, Vernon AME Church was added to the National Register of Historic places, joining 96 other registered nationally historic sites around Tulsa. Dr. Robert Turner became the new pastor of Vernon the previous year. Every Wednesday, before Tulsa’s City Council meeting, Dr. Turner arrives at the steps of Tulsa’s City Hall to demand justice for the victims of the 1921 Massacre as well as victims of police brutality such as Terrance Crutcher. Turner has joined a current ongoing lawsuit against the City of Tulsa for reparations for the Massacre. Dr. Turner believes that the descendants of Greenwood are owed reparations from the City of Tulsa’s active and intentional role in the destruction of Black Wall Street.
Rev. Robert Turner’s food ministry and fight on the front lines of criminal & social justice reform are a testament to the African Methodist Episcopal motto: God our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family.