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.

Oklahoma’s Pentecostal History: Lamont

A  tiny town of 500 in north-central Oklahoma was at one time responsible for the Pentecostal revival’s spread across many parts of Western Oklahoma from 1907-1908. That tiny town was Lamont, Oklahoma. This video tells the story of Lamont and the revival of 1907-1908 that impacted the Pentecostal Movement in Oklahoma.

Lamont was the location  for the Fire-Baptized Holiness Association of Benjamin Harden Irwin in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century. Irwin was a holiness revivalist that taught there were three experiences: salvation, sanctification, and a fire baptism in the Holy Spirit. in 1902, the FBHA disbanded and the Lamont church was left without a group to associate with.  In 1907, Glenn A Cook left the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles to come to Lamont to hold meetings. There he found a group of Holiness believers (likely FBHA believers) who were hungry for the Pentecostal experience. Cook stayed two weeks with great success.  After Cook left, several other early Pentecostal leaders also came including J.H. King and G.B. Cashwell.  During the next two years, believers from all over Oklahoma came to Lamont to experience the power of the Holy Spirit. The revival moved elsewhere by 1910, but the little town of Lamont certainly made a big impact.

Here is Cook’s report from the January 1908 issue of the Apostolic Faith Newspaper.

The Theological Legacy of “I’ll Fly Away”

If you were to ask for song requests in any AG church in America, I can almost guarantee someone will request “I’ll Fly Away”.  For whatever reason, this song has become an American and Pentecostal favorite of previous generations. There are several reasons its popular. For one, this song has an Oklahoma connection, being written in 1932 by Alfred E. Brumley from Spiro, OK. (Check out this great article in the Tulsa World about Brumley and Spiro).   Second, its is a fun song with a catchy tune.  Its one of those songs you can’t help but clap and shout to.  Perhaps its most notable appeal is the eschatological concept.  “I’ll fly away” expresses the hope for many christians that we will one day ‘fly away’ to heaven to be with Jesus.

As a person who didn’t grow up singing this song, it doesn’t have the same sentimentality for me that it does for many Pentecostals. As a student of eschatology I have discovered that the song actually represents a very important tension in Pentecostal eschatology.  Let me explain.

Pentecostals have always cherished the doctrine of the soon coming of Christ.  The most important aspect in the doctrine of the rapture is that believers will be caught up to be with the Lord when he comes (1 Thess. 5:17).  So when the song says, “I’ll fly away”, we immediately are filled with hope and joy that Jesus is coming.

When you look at the song there are some conflicting messages about heaven, the return of Christ and death. Let me demonstrate.

  • “Some glad morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away” – What is this phrase referring to? “When this life is over” makes me think it is about death. But death is not the rapture, although in some sense we do ‘fly away’ to heaven.  But rapture is best understood as alive people being caught up and transformed as we are welcomed into heaven.
  • “To a home on God’s celestial shore” – This phrase and imagery is very popular in hymnody.  But notice the designation of Home.  When Jesus comes, we are going home to heaven.
  • “When I die, Hallelujah bye and bye, I’ll fly away.” – Again, the intention is unclear.  Is this death or the rapture?

The AG believes that Jesus will return to rapture/resurrect the bride of Christ and bring her to the Marriage supper of the Lamb in Heaven. However, this will only be a temporary journey, because after a short time (most say it will be 7 years but not all) Jesus will return with his saints to set up the millennial kingdom on earth.  Pentecostals understood that Heaven was Not Their Home. 

Contrary to descriptions made by some scholars, Pentecostals were not “otherworldly”, at least not in an eschatological sense. They were very focused on the future of earth.  Prior to about 1950, AG periodicals talked about heaven, but they did so ambiguously and rarely did they see it as our eternal home. But classical evangelical theology and hymnody such as “I’ll Fly Away” slowly began to change that orientation.  In the late 1940s and 1950s, at the height of the convention song era of hymnody, songs about heaven dominated the minds of AG churches.  Soon, everyone was singing, “Ill fly Away”.

As I point out in my book, and as I have discovered in my study of the first 50 years of AG eschatology,  the Pentecostal hope is not going to heaven, it is that Jesus is coming to make everything new again.  Heaven is not our home, the earth is our home.  One day, Jesus will return to set up his kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Our hope is that through the reign of Christ, the world will be transformed and all of the promises of no more curse, sin, and pain will be realized.  Earth will be Heaven once more as it was in the Garden of Eden.

One AG writer put it this way in 1917,

“God has been a stranger and an outcast to His own garden because of the usurper, but the Son of the Father undertook to deal with the usurper and will not leave off till He has completed the work given to Him by His Father, so that God once more can visit His garden”. WE 216 (Nov 24, 1917), p. 4.

Similarly, S.A. Jamieson comments in 1922,

“The planet on which we live is by no means to be annihilated … As sinful man has been delivered by redemption of Jesus Christ, so this sin-cursed earth is also to share in that redemption. It is to be transformed, renew, glorified and made a fit place for the habitation of God’s redeemed people.” S.A. Jamieson, ‘A New Heavens and A New Earth’, PE 464/465 (Sep 30, 1922), p. 6.

We are Premillennial believers. We believe there will be a literal kingdom on earth and we will be in it.  If we believe that, how can Heaven be our home? We will ‘fly away’, but we will also ‘fly back’ to earth.

Now you may be saying, “So what. Its just a song”.  I understand. For those of you that love the song, I don’t want to diminish that love. Sing away!  Its a part of our heritage. But from a eschatological perspective, as we sing these songs about heaven, just keep this in mind.  Our songs shape our theology in much of the same way that this song has shaped our eschatology and the role of heaven. As believers, we are not trying to escape this world. That is not our hope. Our hope is that one day Jesus is going to fix this world.   The AG has been committed to that hope for over 100 years. He created the Earth for us. The Earth also longs for our redemption (Romans 8:19-25). Eden was lost, but it will be restored when Jesus comes again. That is our hope. Not that we will live with God in heaven, but that one day God will live with us again on earth.

“Then I hears a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men and he will live with them. He will wipe very tear from their eyes.'” (Revelation 21:2-3).