The Victory of Greenwood: Reverend Ben H. Hill

Reverend Ben H. Hill

Jimmie Lewis Franklin wrote in Journey Toward Hope, “No discussion of Black political life in Oklahoma could ignore the tenure of Representative Ben [H.] Hill of Tulsa. …His careful reasoning often left both Black militants and white racists uncomfortable. He advised whites to stop talking to themselves and to confront the reality of a racist society, and he scolded those Black [people] who demanded equal opportunity without stressing equal responsibilities.” Though only serving in the Oklahoma State House of Representatives from 1968-1971, Hill put his writing and oratory gifts to great use, serving his community and helping others become servant-leaders. 

Benjamin Harrison Hill was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, in eastern Canada, on November 1, 1903. He and his family: father, Joseph L. Hill, a steel mill worker, mother, Anna E. Hill, who worked as a maidservant, and his older sister, Josephine, moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where Ben spent his childhood years. He earned a graduate degree at Wilberforce University in Ohio and studied law at the University of Nebraska. He also earned a doctorate in divinity from Samuel Payne Theological University. While teaching at Campbell College in Jackson, Mississippi, Hill met his wife, Fannie Ezelle Johnson. Fannie was the daughter of Bishop William Decker Johnson of Plains, Georgia.

Saving George Hill’s Life
The couple moved back to Fannie’s hometown, and in 1938, Hill was licensed to preach at the St. John AME Church in Plains. With a population of less than a thousand people, Plains would be an almost entirely unknown small town, but it so happens that it is the hometown of President Jimmy Carter. The Carters and Fannie’s family, the Johnsons, were neighbors, and Fannie was childhood friends with Jimmy and his two brothers. In a 1976 article for Jet magazine, she recalled that the Carters never had a “back door policy,” and their families were quite close. When Ben and Fannie’s 9-month old son, George Forris Hill, became deathly ill, Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, a registered nurse, visited the Hills and stayed with George through the night caring for him. “Miss Lillian saved his life. We didn’t even call her. She learned of his condition and just came over to our house. She is a great woman from a great family. Color made little difference to her.” George F. Hill grew up to become a Lieutenant Colonel in the U. S. Air Force.

A few years after young George’s illness, another tragedy struck when Fannie’s father, Bishop Johnson, passed, and the family faced financial trouble with banks threatening to foreclose on the family home. The Carters were not a wealthy family, but they nonetheless lent the Hills the money to put Fannie’s family’s estate in order. Fannie never forgot these kindnesses, and when Jimmy Carter announced that he would seek the nomination for the Presidency in December of 1974, Fannie, along with her brother, Alvin Johnson, helped organize his campaign in Oklahoma.

Inclusive Faith and Activism
Ben Hill was called to Oklahoma and led congregations in Boley, Claremore, and Muskogee. Hill and his wife relocated to Tulsa in 1949, where the reverend became the leader of Vernon AME Church. From 1951 to 1971, Hill also worked as the editorial page editor of the Oklahoma Eagle newspaper under publisher E. L. Goodwin, Sr., and edited the AME Church Review. One of the earliest published African-American journals, the AME Church Review is the journal of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, first published in September, 1841.

In 1952, a young Lutheran pastor from Wisconsin, Karl E. Lutze, arrived in Tulsa. The pastor had worked for seven years leading a mixed-race congregation at Hope Lutheran Church in Muskogee, and had come to learn a little about the systemic oppression that Black people were living under in Oklahoma. He spoke with his colleagues in Tulsa and pointed out that while there were already five Lutheran churches in Tulsa, not one of them had any Black members. He felt that he should take what he learned in Muskogee and establish a new Lutheran church in North Tulsa. He also knew enough to understand that he would have no chance of success without the community’s buy-in. One of the first North Tulsa leaders that Lutze would get to know was attorney B. C. Franklin. Lutze was then introduced to Dr. Charles Bate, E. L. Goodwin, Sr., and Reverend Hill. Lutz wrote in his autobiography Awakening to Equality that Hill was familiar with the works of Martin Luther and was particularly intrigued by the Lutheran focus on lay leadership, saying to him, “Any community should benefit from that kind of focus. Our community could use some of that spirit too.” Gaining North Tulsa’s trust would take Lutze many months, building relationships with Black business and religious leaders as well as North Tulsa residents, all while urging Oklahoma’s Lutheran congregations to take more of an active role to address racial divisions.

Under the leadership of Hill, Vernon AME began struggling in the late 1950s with the question of how much churches would contribute to civil rights demands being made by newly forming organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Rev. Hill was the president of both the North Tulsa Ministerial Alliance and the Tulsa Chapter of the NAACP. Rev. B. S. Roberts and Rev. Hill asked another young pastor, Dr. G. Calvin McCutchen, Sr., to join the NAACP with them. Born in rural Kentucky, McCutchen graduated from Tennessee State University one week before preaching his first sermon at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in August, 1953. A few years later, the three pastors, working with the NAACP, began sponsoring and coordinating sit-ins, the first in Oklahoma in 1958 at Katz Drugstore in Oklahoma City. In Tulsa, the most controversial sit-ins were at Borden’s and Piccadilly Cafeterias. By the mid-1960s, with the help of John Wolf at All Souls Unitarian Church, Norbert Rosenthal from Temple Israel, and others, the faith community united seventy-five clergy in Tulsa and filed a successful petition to create a citywide public accommodations ordinance.

Welcoming Martin Luther King to Tulsa
In 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr., was scheduled to speak in Oklahoma City. John Cloman, the president of a Tulsa voting rights organization, invited King to Tulsa. Initially, King informed Cloman that his busy schedule prevented him from stopping in Tulsa. Fortunately, King’s plans changed, allowing for a short stop in Tulsa after his event in Oklahoma City. About 100 supporters awaited King’s arrival at the Tulsa airport.

On Thursday, July 28, 1960, Hill introduced King as “the living Moses” to a crowd of over 1,500 people at First Baptist Church North Tulsa. The event was followed by a peaceful march from First Baptist on Greenwood Avenue to Boulder Park (today named Veterans Park at 18th Street and Boulder Avenue) with demonstrators holding signs displaying civil rights mottos like “Jim Crow Must Go,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Freedom Now.”

Dr. King’s visit to Tulsa was three years before his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D. C. Rev. Hill, a group of youth members from Vernon AME, Tulsa’s Student Committee on Human Rights, and the Youth Council of the NAACP attended the March on Washington and were present for the historic speech.  

A Flyer Enrages a City
Beginning with Tulsa’s 1957 Comprehensive Plan, Greenwood was targeted for demolition to build a highway system encircling the downtown area. Tulsa leveraged funding from the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 to begin building the “Inner Dispersal Loop” and highways 75 and I-244. With the City of Tulsa using eminent domain in the mid-1960s to buy large swaths of Greenwood’s business and residential areas in order to build the highways, Urban Renewal meant a second destruction for the neighborhood that had rebuilt and was a diverse, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood for more than four decades after the Massacre.

During this time, Tulsa began participating in the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966 (known as the Model Cities program). Part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” the Model Cities program was seen in one sense as a continuation of the work of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The concept of Model Cities was innovative: the federal government would provide grants to cities to create local anti-poverty programs (in many cities called Community Action Agencies) to collaborate with federally-created initiatives such as Head Start, Jobs Corps, Social Security, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and the Food Stamp program.

Tulsa was chosen as one of 63 “Model Cities.” Local, state, and federal leadership all felt that these programs were the way forward to greater social equity. Indeed, several leaders in North Tulsa, such as Curtis Lawson, felt the same way. Lawson was the first African American to represent Tulsa in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, serving from 1965 – 1969. What community advocates like Lawson, Rev. Hill, and Mabel Little, who worked on the effort to desegregate Tulsa Public Schools (funding for which was provided by Tulsa Model Cities), could not foresee was the way that the city government would abuse the program and create further divisions between Black and white Tulsa. 

In a 2004 academic thesis, Maximum Feasible Participation: The War on Poverty in Tulsa, OK 1965 – 1970, Missie Louise Allen describes how Tulsa Model Cities was unique among similar programs in other cities (and not in a good way). Tulsa was one of only five cities where local officials had the power to veto proposed anti-poverty projects. The largest Model Cities program in Tulsa was called the Tulsa Economic Opportunity Task Force (TEOTF). In 1969, the Mayor of Tulsa, James M. Hewgley, Jr., accused the TEOTF of being “a great waste of resources,” and filled the board of directors of TEOTF with prominent local elites. In essence, the mayor appointed members to program committees who would do what the mayor wanted. Stacked with figureheads with no experience in alleviating poverty, Tulsa Model Cities lost its vision. In addition, community involvement was a complete failure. Citizens asked to provide feedback for these programs were not given clear goals and desired outcomes. What little community input North Tulsa tried to provide was ignored in the best cases, and in several instances, openly attacked by the mayor and City Commission..

Allen describes in her thesis that Rev. Hill created his own nonprofit, separate from the TEOTF, called “New Day” in 1965. The nonprofit was tasked with implementing the city’s VISTA program. The effort was challenging to get off the ground, with no support from City Hall and harsh criticism in the Tulsa Tribune and the Tulsa World. By the fall of 1966, there were only 17 VISTA workers. In response to a Tulsa World article that called the program benefiting low-income families a threat to the city at large, VISTA workers circulated a flyer including the statements:

Southside Children play in beautiful parks while Negro children play in streets. DOES CITY HALL CARE? No parks, no movies, no recreation at all. Funny thing about North Tulsa. There’s nothing for Negroes, nothing for nobody, just nothing. HAS CITY HALL CONDEMNED THE NORTHSIDE? Come to a meeting on Wednesday, March 15, 7 pm, Old St. Monica’s School, 619 E. Newton Pl. Discuss your complaints about vacant, condemned houses, grocery prices that are too high, landlords who are unfair, and any other problems of our part of town, and be prepared to take action.

The flyer got North Tulsa’s attention, and the meeting resulted in the highest attendance VISTA had seen. The flyer also got the attention of the mayor, Governor Dewey Bartlett, state officials such as Representative Page Belcher, and United States Senator Mike Monroney, all accusing the organization of stirring up racial tensions. The national VISTA office and the national Office of Economic Opportunity were asked to investigate the flyer incident to determine if New Day had violated VISTA guidelines against partisan or political activity. The offices found no wrongdoing, and Tulsa’s VISTA leadership insisted that the flyer had “no intent to create an inflammatory situation.” However, newspapers continued their vicious attacks, calling for VISTA to “Pack Up And Go Home!”

Upset about the results of the federal investigation, Mayor Hewgley called for an apology from New Day. Rev. Hill responded, saying that he felt that he saw nothing to apologize for and that the flyers served their purpose—to call attention to Tulsa’s attitude that North Tulsa was an afterthought. Indeed, the flyers resulted in the strengthening of two grassroots organizations, Citizens for Progress and Citizens for Community Action. The organizations identified problems in North Tulsa’s parks and recreation, consumer prices, city services, fair housing, fair employment, and condemned housing (all issues mentioned in the controversial flyer).

However, much of New Day’s leadership was forced to resign, the regional office denied a renewal of funding for the program, and in December, 1967, the Tulsa World ran a series of six articles, further criticizing VISTA. TEOTF was instructed to replace Rev. Hill with a new leader, Lee O’Neil, a white Catholic priest. Several of VISTA’s programs were delegated to a new nonprofit, Neighbor for Neighbor. Finally, under the Nixon administration, VISTA in Tulsa was dissolved, and New Day shut down.

Ultimately, the Model Cities years created a lack of trust between the Black community and public officials. Combined with oversight from wealthy professionals with no experience in anti-poverty nonprofit work, what got left out of Tulsa Model Cities, Urban Renewal, and the Federal Highway Program was the human element. Because all these programs were happening simultaneously (all with disastrous results), the Black community referred to them collectively as “Urban Removal.” Before he passed in 2008, Lawson expressed that his greatest regret was lending his support for Tulsa Model Cities.

A Life of Service to the Community
Rev. Hill remained active throughout Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma in community-oriented organizations, including the Tulsa Urban League, the Tulsa Council of Churches, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Boy Scouts of America, and Community Chest. Hill also served as director of the Tulsa Economic Task Force. 

In 1968, Hill entered politics and was elected to the Oklahoma State House of Representatives as a Democrat from District 73. He served one full term and died on Friday, September 17, 1971, at the age of 67, before completing his second term. Writing for the Oklahoma Historical Society’s online encyclopedia, Robert H. Henry called Rev. Hill “a brilliant strategist and perhaps the most skilled orator of his day. Reverend Hill rebuilt Black political power in Tulsa.”

Hill was named “Tulsa’s Outstanding Citizen” by the Tulsa Park and Recreation Department, and a recreation center was named after him —the Ben Hill Recreation Center at 210 E. Latimer Place. Today the center is home to the Reed Community Foundation.

Fannie Hill had served on an equally impressive number of organizations. She worked for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program in Tulsa for 28 years, retiring as assistant director in 1999. Her volunteer work included serving as a regent of the Tulsa Osteopathic College of Medicine, on the boards of the local Salvation Army, the Tulsa Area Agency on Aging, and as president of the Interdenominational and Interracial Pastor’s Wives.

She was also a Morton Health Center board member, an Urban League member, a National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) Women’s Committee member, director of the Richard Allen Youth Council of the Tulsa District for the AME. Church, and taught at the church’s Sunday school. Fannie Hill was active in the League of Women Voters, the Democratic Club of Tulsa, and the YWCA. She was appointed to the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women and received a 1998 Interfaith Award, presented by Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, the Tulsa Jewish Federation, and the National Conference for Community and Justice.

Rev. Hill’s legacy lives on in Tulsa’s interfaith, inter-racial, and grassroots anti-poverty work. He wasn’t afraid to challenge Tulsa’s leadership and fight for what he felt was right. His courage and inspiring words helped invigorate North Tulsa at a time when progress was stuck, the city was actively working to oppress the Black community further, and political apathy set in. We can learn quite a bit today from Hill’s activism and community service, rooted in his faith.

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