June 1, 2021, was the 100th anniversary of the horrific Greenwood Massacre. This event involved the attack and fire-bombing a predominately Black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing many people, and burning down many businesses and homes of the area known as “Black Wall Street.”
While reading several articles recounting this appalling incident, I noticed an interactive digital map that indicated a “Bethel Seventh Day Church” that was in the section that was burned (“What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed”, New York Times). Seeing this church sparked my curiosity, and I began a quick dive into the response of Seventh-day Adventist Church to the destruction of one of their churches.
The Bethel Seventh-day Adventist Church appears to have been founded in 1918. In 1919, it was recurved to have 26 members, with 20 mentioned in both 1921 and 1922.
Searching through the online archives of church periodicals reveals only a few references to “Tulsa” in the weeks immediately following this event in 1921.
One article used this crisis as evidence of the closeness of the Second Coming and evidence of living in the last days. This is in reference to the lawlessness and violence of the event, and does not seem to cast blame.
The most coverage was in the pages of the Southwestern Union Record, the denominational paper for the area of the country that includes Oklahoma. The following excerpts from the Record are included below in full:
June 14, 1921 - page 4
“The negro riot in Tulsa last week was a terrible thing for our brethren and also the conference. We lost our little church, three of our sisters were made homeless and our colored minister, Elder White, lost all of his clothes and some money belonging to the church which was in his possession. We are sorry for this and we wish to assure our brethren that they will receive help from us as soon as possible.”
This is the most descriptive narrative of what happened to the Bethel Seventh-day Adventist Church. The church was destroyed, along with the homes of three of the members (this does not indicate if this was three separate households, or if they lived in the same house). The pastor also lost his possessions, as well as some of the churche’s money.
It is enlightening to note the term used to describe this event, “negro riot”. No mention is made of the extreme violence of the white population.
July 12, 1921 - page 5
“Sister Jackson says that she is again able to get into homes of the colored people at Tulsa and is rejoicing in being able to show the people the way.”
Sister Jackson was an African-American Bible worker ministering in Tulsa. Apparently, she was unable to visit people for several weeks due to the situation.
Aug 30, 1921 - page 5
“The work for our colored people has been going forward under difficulties. The Tulsa riot which resulted in the loss of our church building was a great calamity; however, our colored brethren have stood the test nobly and are doing their best to over-come the difficulties that are incident to this calamity, and they are faithful to the truth.”
The broader church conference expresses concern for the church and its members, and lifts them up in a positive way for how they handled the situation.
Sept 27, 1921 - page 5
“When the Tulsa Negro church decides to again erect a permanent building we shall all esteem it a pleasure to assist”
The church appears to have been destroyed, and in need of reconstruction. This brief exploration has not determined when and where that church was rebuilt.
Oct 4, 1921 - page 7
“Elder W. S. North writes of the work among the colored people at Tulsa that eighteen members have moved away or apostasied [sic] during the last six months. A storm blew down the tent in which they hold their meetings but they have pitched it again. Elder North is of good courage and plans for aggressive work among the colored people of Tulsa this winter.”
This seems to indicate that over the previous months a large portion of the congregation left. That could correlate with the massacre that took place, perhaps as members moved away because of the area being damaged. It is impressive that this church continued to meet in a tent for at least 4 months, even as the tent is blown away in a storm.
Oct 18, 1921 - page 5
“The Tulsa colored Sabbath-school gave over $50.00 on the Thirteenth Sabbath. The church membership is only 19. Considering the severe trials through which this company has passed, the loss of their church building, etc., they certainly deserve honorable mention.”
This shows the resilience of this congregation. While suffering hardship themselves, they were still willing to do what they could to assist in ministry to others. This theme continues in ongoing reports.
Nov 15, 1921 - page 5
“Brother North writes that our colored brothren [sic] at Tulsa are becoming encouraged. Their tithes and offerings are coming up and some day they hope for another church building.”
Six months later the church is continuing to donate financially. And continuing to hope for a new church building.
Nov 29, 1921 - page 8
"Our work for the colored folks is making progress. Elder North is erecting a box tabernacle 20x20 in which to hold the Sabbath and other meetings at Tulsa. Sister Jackson is working in Tulsa also. She is finding interested ones and is adding to the Sabbath school by her work. Brother White has been working Boley in the interest of the Harvest Ingathering. In Oklahoma City both the day and the night school are making commendable progress.”
As winter approaches, finally a simple structure is being built. The next several citations describe this process. There is no indication if it is in the same location as the destroyed church building.
Dec 6, 1921 - page 7
“Brother North writes that the colored believers held meeting in their building at Tulsa last week. It is simply a box house or room 20x20, but they are comfortable, and they rejoice in having this place in which to worship this winter.”
Dec 13, 1921 - page 4
“Elder Van Kirk met with the colored brethren in Tulsa. They have erected a temporary building to meet in this winter and are quite comfortable. They are of good courage. Brother North and Sister Jackson are finding some interested people. One new family of Sabbath keepers, Brother and Sister Baylor, were present at the service.”
Jan 17, 1922 - page 4
“Then the colored brethren at Tulsa have been struggling to provide themselves
with a building. Their nice little church was destroyed by the riot last summer, and we need to help them; and our Conference Poor Fund is low so we are asking our brethren to donate several hundred dollars for these purposes January 28.”
This is the first time since the initial report that mention is made of why the church was destroyed. The conference is looking to support this church in the rebuilding of a more permanent structure. A special date is set aside to raise money for this project.
Feb 7, 1922 - page 3
“Elder W. S. North of Tulsa colored church says that in spite of lack of work the members of that little faithful band bring in their tithes and offerings.”
“Tulsa is one of our discouraging fields. We lost our place of worship in this city, and owing to this, and the unsettled condition of the people we do not see any great thing having been done there. Yet we see our faithful minister, Elder W. S. North pulling with all his might to spread God's message there, and trying to provide a place out of the coals for our faithful and loyal church members to worship in.”
March 7, 1921 - page 7
“Elder W. S. North reports that two adults, Brother and Sister Balor with two boys have united with the colored church at Tulsa. This is an encouragement to the church. Their Missionary society have been distributing a large amount of literature and the tent company is of good courage in spite of the difficulties.”
I examined the periodicals for one year after the Massacre took place. It appears that the church continued to minister during this difficult time, and that the Southwestern Union desired to support them. I was unable to find a report of the January 28 offering that was promoted in two different editions of the Record, so no indication of how much offering was received and how much went to the Bethel church.
Further study is needed to determine the long-term results of the recovery of this church.
Greg Hudson (DMin, RN) currently is Pastor of Church Life at Collegedale Community Church. He enjoys hiking, burritos, and a good bowl of ice cream (not necessarily in that order)
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Notes & References:
1. Parshina-Kottas, Yullya, et al, “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed”, New York Times, May 24, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html
2. Ellsworth, Scott, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, LSU Press (1992), 113.
3. Signs of the Times, July 19, 2021, 1, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/ST/ST19210712-V48-27.pdf