Clarification: This story originally did not contain attribution about when the church was built. It has been added. Additional details about the church's history also have been included.
The Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of north Tulsa’s oldest institutions, was added this month to the National Register of Historic Places.
Reconstructed in 1928, according to National Historic Registry documents — just seven years after the Tulsa race massacre — the church is considered symbolic by many for the resilience of black Tulsans and the Greenwood community.
“It is evidence of a community trying to rebuild after a truly catastrophic and terrible event,” said Sara Werneke, National Register program coordinator for the state Historic Preservation Office.
The Vernon AME congregation first began meeting as early as 1905, and started worshiping at the Vernon AME church back when it was just a basement. Work started on the upstairs section of the church in 1919, but after mobs of white Tulsans descended on Greenwood in 1921, the church, along with nearly the entire district, was destroyed. The basement, however, remained and faithful were returning to Vernon the day after the race massacre ended.
Reconstruction of the church at 311 N. Greenwood Ave. wouldn’t officially be complete for another several years.
When the church was finally completed, it came back bigger, with more seating, nicer furniture and with hundreds more in attendees.
“I’m humbled every day to walk through a place that has seen so much terror but also been a vessel of hope for so many people,” Vernon AME pastor Robert Turner said. “After the massacre, people who lost their homes and their belongings still went to church on Sunday morning.”
With a few exceptions, Vernon still has most of its original parts. An education wing was added in 1959, and a new pair of double doors was installed in 1974, but by and large the red brick church has the same old bones.
According to the Historic Preservation Office, Vernon AME Church is “significant at the state level for its role in understanding race relations in the United States under legal segregation ... and in social history for its depiction of racial intolerance against African-Americans.”
It was there in the aftermath and the years of reconstruction, and it remained after Interstate 244 forced many Greenwood residents and businesses to move away in the 1950s. When urban renewal efforts in the ’70s bulldozed yet more homes, the Vernon AME Church weathered that, too.
“We’ve kind of suffered a lot with the population decline in the area, but we’re still holding on strong, just that undying hope and faith and grace of God,” Turner said, adding that the church still has more than 100 members. “We’re still here. We’re not going anywhere, and this historical status vindicates our presence.”
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. It was the second failed attempt to get city approval for funding for a race riot memorial and museum.
Vernon AME Church joins 96 other registered nationally historic sites around Tulsa. There are 1,337 registered sites in the whole state, Werneke said.