Alabama pastor leads church that survived the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 years ago

Alabama News

In this photo provided by Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa, two armed men in walk away from burning buildings as others walk in the opposite direction during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Rev. Robert Turner’s life has always between split between the church and the public square.

The way he tells it, Turner met Jesus in Alabama, all while growing up in Tuskegee and being raised in a family that took faith seriously. In fact, his own father gave him his middle name, Richard Allen, in honor of the founder of the African American Episcopal Church. However, Turner was also the boy who put up yard signs supporting former Alabama Education Association President Paul Hubbert’s run for governor, who marched on campus to protest as a student at the University of Alabama, and the first Black Chief of Staff in the UA Student Government Association’s history.

The Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, is pictured during an interview at the church, Sunday, April 11, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Today, Turner continues to live in those two places, especially in his role as pastor of Vernon AME Church in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The church was one of the few buildings to survive the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, where white mobs attacked Black residents and burned down businesses and homes in the district, an area so prosperous in the Black community that former Tuskegee University President Booker T. Washington once called it “Black Wall Street.”

Monday and Tuesday mark the 100-year anniversary of the massacre, where between 200 to 300 people were killed, thousands more were left homeless and many homes, buildings and businesses were burned to the ground.

Vernon AME served a big role both during the massacre and in its wake. Many residents flocked to the church basement to find cover from the looting and pillaging. After the riot, the church hosted the graduation ceremony for Book T. Washington High School. The church did sustain some damage and was later renovated and expanded.

The Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church is pictured Monday, April 12, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Turner first heard about the massacre in 2003 while attending the University of Alabama School of Law. Turner said he was not surprised. Having come from a town where many Black residents were unknowingly given syphilis by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he had seen how Black people had been treated over the years.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t that surprised that Black Wall Street was destroyed,” Turner said. “I was not surprised that it was sanctioned by the government. I was just really disappointed and upset, but I was not surprised.”

By the time Turner had arrived in Tulsa in 2017, he learned even more about how many victims of the massacre were buried in unmarked mass graves and how no one was ever charged.

“Really, nothing surprises me anymore to what this country has done to African Americans, and it’s sad, but it’s the history of our existence in this nation,” he said. “What is so frustrating and upsetting about this is I know what happened then was terrible, but to this day, no justice has been done.”

People walk by a mural for Black Wall Street in the Greenwood district during centennial commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/John Locher)

In the last few years, Turner has put himself forward to bring awareness to the massacre, as well as advocate for a better Greenwood District. He supports reparations being given to the ancestors of the massacre victims.

Despite his frustration with how the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre went largely unnoticed for many years, Turner said his faith gives him hope for better days ahead.

“In the end, God wins,” he said. “If God wins, truth and justice win. That what gives me hope for tomorrow.”

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