Bishop Travis B. Sipuel: A Pentecostal Survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

During my research on the history of the Pentecostal movement in Tulsa, I discovered the story of a Church of God in Christ pastor, Bishop Travis B. Sipuel, who survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. His story we know because of his daughter Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the famous Oklahoma Civil Rights leader. This is his story.

Bishop Travis B. Sipuel (1877-1946)

In 1917, Elder E. M. Page was commissioned by Church of God in Christ founder and Senior Bishop, Charles H. Mason, to be the State Overseer for Oklahoma churches. Page moved to Oklahoma to establish a church in Muskogee and then came to Tulsa.[2] Page saw that leadership was needed for the fledgling COGIC church in Tulsa invited a young pastor from Arkansas, Bishop Travis B. Sipuel, to move to Tulsa with his wife Martha. Bishop Sipuel rented a house on North Greenwood and leased a building for the North Greenwood Church of God in Christ.[3] The building was located at 700 N. Greenwood (presently OSU Tulsa), on the North end of the thriving Black Wallstreet. Sipuel helped to grow the church to 40 people during his time there. Sipuel believed that the beautiful community of Greenwood in Tulsa was the best place to raise a family and build a church.

Home near by where the Sipuel’s may have lived.

When the horrific events of 1921 broke out May 31st, 1921. Sipuel’s family was not immune to the horrific violence. On June 1st , when the mob violence turned to Greenwood, Bishop and Martha Sipuel saw their beautiful house burned by looters. Bishop Sipuel was taken by the Tulsa militia, along with the thousands of black men hands held high, and was marched to an “concentration camp” for black residents in McNulty Park, Tulsa’s ballpark. Meanwhile, Sipuel’s wife was left to watch helplessly and alone as their beautiful house burn to the ground in front of her. One of the white militia men stopped by her as she watched and told her she “better get out of town.”[4]

Photo Credit: Tulsa Historical Society

Although everything they owned was destroyed , thankfully Bishop Sipuel and his wife survived the Race Massacre. They decided to leave town and instead settled in Chickasha, Oklahoma, where he pastored the COGIC church and eventually became a state overseer. His daughter, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, was born in Chickasha and decided to try to enter the University of Oklahoma Law School. When she was denied, she became a civil rights pioneer when her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. She eventually won and graduated and eventually became a law professor at Langston University. In 1992, Lois Sipuel Fisher was appointed to the OU Board of Regents and a garden was named in her honor.

Ada Sipuel with Justice Thurgood Marshall

Despite the tragedies of 1921, the Church of God in Christ and black Pentecostal community in Tulsa survived and continued to grow. Just one year later, in 1922, the North Greenwood COGIC  was said to have grown to 250 people; no doubt the community had turned to the church for hope.[5] The Greenwood Community would eventually rebuild and once again became a center for black commerce in Tulsa. Bishop Travis Sipuel led an distinguished career as a COGIC pastor and leader in Oklahoma.

There are more stories to tell about the black Pentecostal church in Tulsa, which I hope can I uncover and tell. But to me, Bishop Sipuel’s story makes this event all the more real and makes me more passionate to uncover all I can about the history of the black Pentecostal church in Tulsa.

(For related research, see my post about Oral Roberts and the story of Beno Hall being reclaimed for racial reconciliation)


[1] Polk Hoffine’s Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory (1922), 16.

[2] Church of God in Christ Yearbook, (1926), 67.

[3] Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, Matter of Black and White (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 10. The Polk-Hoffhine Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory (1922) notes this as the second COGIC church in Tulsa, although it is hard to know how the two churches were related.

[4] Fisher, Matter of Black and White, 12.

[5] Polk Hoffine’s Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory, 1922, 16.

The AG and Black Heritage

During the month of February, I have read several great articles on Pentecostalism’s black heritage. Vinson Synan wrote about William Seymours’ role as the father of Pentecostalism.  Darrin Rodgers highlights 10 African American ministers that were in important to the AG and the Pentecostal movement.  David Daniel’s highlights what happened to the racial diversity in the Pentecostal movement.

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Leaders of the Azusa Street Revival

When you read these articles you realize just how diverse the Pentecostal movement was and how it began as a multi-racial movement.  Blacks and whites worshiped, prayed and ministered together.Many of the earliest leaders were African Americans.    The Assemblies of God owes a great deal to the African American leaders of Pentecostalism. There would be no AG without C.H. Mason and the Churches of God in Christ.  After Charles Parham was disgraced, members of Parham’s Apostolic Faith network needed to reorganize around new leaders.  Around 1910, several of those leaders such as Howard Goss and E.N. Bell approached C.H. Mason about offering COGiC credentials to their ministers.  For the next 3 years, several hundred white ministers held COGiC credentials and became the nucleus of what would become the Assemblies of God (See Word and Witness Dec 20, 1913, p. 4). Bishop Mason even attended several early AG General Councils.

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Bishop C.H. Mason, founder of the Churches of God in Christ

Despite all of this, the AG has been predominantly made up of white Pentecostal ministers.  Why didn’t the AG stay COGiC?  Why has the AG been predominantly white?   Was it racially motivated?  Some have suggested that the AG was made up of  people associated with Charles Parham and some of his racist ideology. However, most of those who came out from Parham were the same ones that sought out Mason for credentials.  Some suggest that the strong presence of black pentecostal groups like the COGiC church in the midwest made it hard for the AG to be diverse. Some believe the AG was a group subject to its time and the cultural conditions and the racial relations in the midwest.

I can’t say race hasn’t been an issue in the AG.  I am sure it has played a part. But my research into the AG has left me with a couple of other factors that I think people overlook that I believe also may have contributed to the AG becoming predominantly white:

  1. In all my research through over 100 years of AG periodicals, I have yet to read anything that would suggest that the separation between black and white was intentional.  If there were racial motivations for leaving the COGiC or intentionally being a white Pentecostal group, they didn’t admit it.  Of course, I haven’t found anything about advocating for racial diversity either. Perhaps they avoided that issue all together because of the social tensions of their day.
  2. Prior to the AG, many of the AG founders were followers of William Durham and his ‘finished work’ orientation of just salvation and baptism in the Spirit.  Holiness groups believed in three experiences (salvation, sanctification and baptism in the Spirit).  Durham started preaching against holiness teaching on 3 works of grace which caused a bitter controversy between the finished work (which became AG) and other holiness Pentecostals. Mason’s COGiC church was a holiness organization.  This controversy began AFTER these men began issuing credentials to members of the Apostolic faith network.  It is likely that as the divide between the finished work and non-finished work grew, they grew more and more uncomfortable with being under a holiness organization.
  3. Mason’s COGiC church had a different polity than the AG wanted to have.  The AG was founded as a cooperative fellowship that desired to have no ruling governance (which of course was not sustained).  Each AG church was to be sovereign and independent.  Mason’s church had a presbyterian government with ruling bishops like many other holiness Pentecostal groups.  It is likely their founding of their own organization was as concerned with polity as anything else.

In the last 100 years, the AG has taken steps to become more diverse.  There are more African American ministers and fellowships in the AG today.  Progress has been made and there is more to do.  I am proud of what our General Superintendent George Wood has done to partner with COGiC leaders to foster greater racial empathy and understanding.  He has a worked to help our fellowship understand how we are to share in the conversation on race and culture. 

As we look back this month, I am thankful there was a group of men who were not afraid to reach out across racial lines to a Black Pentecostal leader in C.H. Mason for help when they needed it.  I am also thankful that Mason was willing to help those men, though it appears he gained nothing in return.  Even though they eventually parted ways, this is part of the AG story. I am thankful the influence of Black Pentecostal leaders. I am proud to be part of a movement that has honored our differences but encouraged the multi-ethnic vision of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh. I pray we will continue to work towards this vision.