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By Nehemiah D. Frank
TULSA, Okla. — On a crisp fall Wednesday afternoon in one of America’s most racially polarized cities, a Black man’s booming voice formidably thunders amid the buildings on the corner of a busy downtown intersection. A southern and lyrical utterance, reminiscent of a famed Civil Right’s icon and Nobel prize recipient, purposefully admonishes a city’s inhuman past sins.
Protruding from the mouth of the bullhorn, Dr. Robert Turner’s voice fans the ashes of a Tulsa’s unresolved inner conflict between its Black and White neighbors.
“There was a massacre in this city,” the pastor of the historical church declares. “There was a massacre where innocent children, innocent women, innocent men were killed at point blank range.”
He is the new pastor of the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal church in Greenwood, the only building that remained fully intact during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Vernon A.M.E. was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.
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Every Wednesday, before the city council meeting, Dr. Turner faithfully arrives at the steps of Tulsa’s City Hall. Standing at 6 feet and 4 inches, dressed in a clerical collar, the gentle and god-fearing giant can’t be missed. Treading with a divine authority, he preaches the gospel and simultaneously weaves in Tulsa’s long list of injustices, seemingly subjugated towards its Black citizens: a massacre that implicatively left thousands dead with no charges filed and unpaid reparations; moreover, he intensely scrutinizes the local government on its perpetual negative treatment of its Black citizens — webbing the police killing of an unarmed Black man, Terence Crutcher, coupled with mass incarceration, a corrupt police and sheriff’s department, a food desert, a life expectancy gap, and an economically blighted community.
Dr. Turner is a transplant from Montgomery, Alabama, a city laden with its, own, dark dealings of inhuman atrocities towards the Black race — chattel slavery and racial state-sponsored terrorism after emancipation, through the Reconstruction era, and throughout the early and mid-twentieth-century. Yet in spite of its nefarious past, Montgomery courageously chose to reflect on its past errors, the first step to social healing. It erected the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for racial healing. Black rustic emblems reverently memorializing the names of lynched victims, infinitely chiseled, and symbolically suspended from the edifice’s roof. The memorial stands as a wise reminder and educational vehicle that provokes thought and dialogue.
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Dr. Turner believes that the descendants of Greenwood are owed repatriations from the City of Tulsa’s active and intentional role in the destruction of Black Wall Street.
“I had a burden, placed on my heart.” Dr. Turner said he thought about the scripture when Cain killed his brother Able in the old testament. God asked Cain where his brother was and Cain responded with “Am I, my brother’s keeper?”
Dr. Turner explained the biblical story further, “God said, ‘what have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out from the ground to me”.
Dr. Turner said that since he became the Pastor at Vernon A.M.E. that he’s really been feeling, as though the blood of those who died are crying out for justice.
“God hears the pain and agony. He heard their cries then, and he hears them now,” Dr. Turner says.
It’s been 97 years since the 1921 Greenwood Massacre; however, Dr. Turner feels that there is no statute of limitations on the need for justice. He believes God is calling him to demand justice for the massacre victims nearly a 100 years after what some refer was a riot.
“One of my members bought me a bullhorn, and I took that as a sign that — okay, it’s time to go. It is time to do it.”
Two weeks ago, Dr. Turner asked Tulsa’s Mayor, GT Bynum, about reparations for the community and inquired about the mass graves. He also highlighted that the city of Tulsa doesn’t even have an accurate number of murdered victims during the massacre. The community meeting ignited citywide conversation and caught the attention of national media — the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Dr. Turner said that Mayor G.T. Bynum didn’t agree to the reparations question he asked.
He explained that he doesn’t have a problem with conversations around economic development, but that he takes issue with conversations around economic development without taking into account the historical significance of the Greenwood area.
“That is blood land; that is sacred land and it’s a crime scene,” Dr. Turner explained.
“I hope that they donate some of the lands, that they plan to develop, to some of the institutions that lived through the riot.”
Dr. Turner wants to see a proper burial for the countless Black bodies that were dumped into the mass graves around the city during the massacre.
Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and executive editor of The Black Wall Street Times. He graduated from Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Oklahoma State University. A rising voice in America and an emerging leader in the education reform movement, Nehemiah frequently travels for speaking engagements around the country, is a blogger for Education Post, and has been featured on NBC as well as in Blavity and Tulsa People. Nehemiah is also a teacher at Sankofa School of the Performing Arts in Tulsa, OK, a 2017 Terence Crutcher Foundation honoree, a recipient of the 2017 METCares Foundation Community Impact Award, and a 2018 Oluko Fellow. He gave a TED Talk at The University of Tulsa in the spring of 2018. Nehemiah has recently been appointed to the Community Advisory Board at the Tulsa World.