Historic Vernon AME Church has been at the heart of the Greenwood District of Tulsa since long before the horrific events for which Greenwood is best known. The congregation dates back to 1905 and the church – though it was torn down and rebuilt in 1914, before being burned during the horrific violence on May 31 and June 1, 1921 – has been at its present site at 307 N. Greenwood Avenue since 1908.
The near total destruction of Greenwood Avenue during the Tulsa Race Massacre left the church badly damaged – but not gone. In the immediate aftermath of the violence and years to come, Vernon AME came to occupy an even more central place in the spiritual and social life of the community of survivors.
That legacy continues today, largely stewarded by Vernon’s current pastor, Dr. Robert Turner, 38 – a native of Tuskegee, Alabama, who moved to Tulsa in 2017 and sits on the Public Oversight Committee for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation. Turner, a proponent of reparations for the survivors and their descendants, along with the residents of Greenwood, has been vocal in the months and weeks leading up to the 100-year anniversary of the racist terror that ravaged the community to whom he now ministers.
Turner, who demonstrates weekly at city hall to advocate for reparations, described one incident where the clash of past horror with present hate was on full display. As he approached city hall with his “Reparations Now” sign one day during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said he encountered some anti-mask protesters. Before he even started talking about reparations – “I simply uttered the words I start with every week, ‘This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it’” – they attacked, Turner said, verbally abusing him, pulling at him and throwing water.
After the incident, Turner said, he went back to Vernon AME to pray for those who had harassed him.
For Vernon AME, reparations are not an abstract concept or cause, either financially or spiritually. According to Turner, after the massacre, the church filed an insurance claim and got nothing (not an unusual occurrence in the neighborhood at the time). A ledger found in an old file cabinet, Turner said, shows that after the violence, many survivors – many of whose own homes and livelihoods had been destroyed – donated what they could to help the church pay its mortgage and rebuild.
Vernon, just like broader Greenwood, is suffering today from the effects of gentrification – what Turner calls “urban removal.” He said, “Our membership is a shell of her former self.” Amid the strain of Covid-19, the church began a food ministry and is in the midst of a capital campaign. “We heal by working,” Turner said. “Even though we’re wounded, we still try to provide healing for our fellow man and woman.”
Turner spoke in the days prior to the anniversary with Jane Greenway Carr of CNN Opinion and Professor Karlos K. Hill of the University of Oklahoma.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
CNN: You are the pastor at Vernon AME Church, the only standing Black-owned structure that remains from the pre-race massacre era. How does it feel to stand inside a sacred building with that kind of history?
Pastor Robert Turner: It is very humbling to be able to sit in the same place where survivors lived, built by them. To walk through the basement where people hid in during the race massacre – and for it not to be a museum, but still an active place of worship, of reflection and of uplift.
CNN: Are there visible scars on the building from the 1921 massacre?
Turner: Yes. We have a pillar that has fire damage on it. We have bricks from underneath the church that were just recently discovered that have burn marks on it. In fact, when they did a renovation of our restroom, as soon as they broke through the concrete the workers said that they immediately smelled smoke, charred soil. They said the soil was very dark and had not been exposed to water or sunlight – it was burnt soil. So we still have those remnants with us.
CNN: What would you say about your church to someone who is learning about the race massacre either for the first time, or in a more fulsome way, connected with the occasion of the centenary?
Turner: I would say that this church saw the worst of America and it also saw what makes America great, which is that resilient spirit, that faith in God – the belief that no matter what happens, we can and we will and we must rebuild. This church is a remnant of a once glorious past that will usher in a new and wonderful future.
CNN: That is beautiful. Do you see – and if so, where do you see – physical or spiritual marks of the 1921 events on your community today? I’m including here your church community and also the wider Greenwood community.
Turner: This community has been traumatized and only recently has it been able to share that trauma with the world. Before, we were intimidated into silence. The Black community was intimidated into silence in the immediate aftermath of the race massacre, and the White majority community didn’t speak about because they knew they had literally just gotten away with murder. We as a community have just begun to talk about it, and what caused it, and that’s like reopening wounds. But they need to be reopened in order for them to heal.
Because we have not yet healed, and now there’s an infection that has grown in that unhealed wound. There have been conversations and people like me and others, who are calling for repair of that wound with reparations.
CNN: You go to city officials each week to demand reparations for the survivors and the residents of Greenwood. Can you describe how and when you began doing this? And why you’re still calling on local government to make this kind of acknowledgment and reconciliation?
Turner: I started on September 12th, 2018. That was the first Wednesday I went out, a day after the anniversary of 9/11. I wanted to remind people that the first use of airplanes during an act of terrorism against America were not 9/11, or even Pearl Harbor. It was Tulsa, Oklahoma. [Note: Turner has spoken elsewhere about how planes were circling Greenwood during the massacre – some say to bomb, others to surveil. Local chronicler Mary E. Parrish also wrote about the sound of “fast approaching aeroplanes” during the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921.]
I support America taking up for her citizens, after 9/11, after Pearl Harbor. But what about the citizens in Greenwood? This country has yet to take up for them. That is sinful. And because it is sinful, God stirred my soul and put it in my heart to go out to city hall every Wednesday, when they have city council meetings. I go out on every Wednesday to bring bible study to them. And I read from the same text, Isaiah 61 [Note: Verse 8 reads: “For I, the Lord, love justice”]. I call on this city in love, because I still love Tulsa.
God loves Tulsa. I call this city in love to recognize what she did was a massacre, an act of war against her own citizens, and to repent from that and to truly turn from that. An apology is not repentance. Repentance is when you turn away from what you’ve apologized for and turn toward repairing it. You repair the harm that you’ve caused. And Tulsa has not yet done that.
CNN: Where are your mind and heart when you minister to your congregation inside a space like Vernon AME at a time like this one, when history is converging – with the observance of one year since the murder of George Floyd and this centenary.
Turner: My heart and my mind go into a sense of righteous indignation at the fact that we still have not gotten justice. Justice for George Floyd is not over. We still have not gotten justice.
As a pastor in this community and especially of this church – which is the grandmother of Greenwood – this is still a tragedy that has yet to be rectified.
And people talk like it happened so long ago, but we still live with that trauma and the damages today. It’s upon our generation now to right the wrongs of the massacre, to address it. If we can all admit now that it was wrong, we should also all be able to admit it’s time for us to do something about it.
CNN: What would you say your vision or your hope for Tulsa going forward is?
Turner: I think we cannot have true reconciliation and healing without reparations. Reparations are a biblical form of reconciliation and healing. And I believe that Tulsa can do it. There are citizens in Tulsa who want this. I just hope that our elected officials have the courage to do what they know, I feel, is right.
CNN: Most of America won’t be in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1 and won’t take part in the observances or events, but many Americans will be looking to Tulsa this week. What would you say to them?
Turner: I would say they should learn from Tulsa. I would say that this city is not unusual. That we all have Tulsas in our states, places of Black excellence where people were killed and bodies, maybe not as many bodies, but bodies were killed, homes were destroyed and justice for the most part has not been done. That’s the scary part about Tulsa, it is not unusual. It is an American city with a terrible racist past. Like most American cities, unfortunately.
And it’s up to us to rectify this. You know? And instead of rectifying it in some spaces, we have a movement to not even teach it anymore. And it just started being taught like literally days ago. And so what I encourage Tulsa and other people who watch it to do is, you know look at Tulsa, you know reflect on Tulsa and what happened, help us fight for justice, but also recognize that there are Tulsas all across this country that have yet to receive justice and whose stories are still not known.