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.

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Spanish Influenza In Tulsa

In conducting my earlier research on Pentecostals and the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 (that has since gone viral around the world through Influence Magazine ), I had wondered if there was anything about the epidemic tied to Tulsa. At that point, my searches had come up empty. However, I decided to look back on some early Pentecostal magazine articles that I had saved that mentioned Tulsa. What  I found is amazing.

Right in the middle of the ‘Spanish Influenza’ epidemic, around January 1919, a young up-and-coming evangelist by the name of Aimee Semple McPherson came to Tulsa. She was invited by  S. A. Jamieson, the pastor of 5th and Peoria Assembly, to come to Tulsa on her way to Los Angeles to conduct a meeting.

The sudden onset of the influenza in Tulsa prompted Jamieson to try to postpone the meeting since Tulsa city officials closed all public meetings. But, McPherson testified that the Spirit urged her to come to Tulsa anyway and “Start immediately,”   Turns out, the same day she arrived the ban on church gatherings was lifted and immediately she started holding services!

Report from Bridal Call, January 1919

The meeting went 22 days and was wildly successful as the Assembly of God church doubled in size. McPherson was a rising star in the Pentecostal circles and her ministry lived up to her reputation. Many came to the Lord and were healed.  One of McPherson’s strategies was to drive her “Gospel Car” around town in between meetings to pass out tracts and minister to people.

According to her own account, while she was in Tulsa, she traveled the streets ministering to “epidemic victims.” Afternoons and evenings, McPherson and her band of workers would roll through the streets and stop to minister to people on the street corners. Men and women came to Christ right on the sidewalk, as many as 20 at a time.

Throughout her two weeks in Tulsa, she testifies the that the calls to come minister to those who were sick with the influenza were “ceaseless.” She says,

“The epidemic still raging, and many having been weakened and afflicted, we stood hours at a time praying of the sick, and Jesus helped those who came to him.”

While there were no testimonies of healing reported, the fact that McPherson ministered to so many in Tulsa is a great delight to discover.

From Tulsa, McPherson stopped in Stroud and Oklahoma City on her way back to LA.  McPherson agreed to return to Tulsa in May of 1919 to hold another revival. This time she would return to a packed 3000 seat Tulsa Convention Center. This became one of the most important meetings that built the Pentecostal community in Tulsa.

As I said in my last blog, I think it is right for churches to close and to obey current regulations to protect people.  However, I am also thankful that McPherson listened to the Spirit to come, not knowing what would happen. Turns out the Spirit’s timing was perfect.   Had she not listened and the epidemic deterred her from coming in January of 1919, Tulsa may have missed out on one the of the greatest events that established the Pentecostal community in Tulsa.

 

 

Reclaiming Racial Spaces in Tulsa: Oral Roberts and Beno Hall

In the aftermath of the 1921 Race Massacre in Tulsa, many of the residential areas surrounding the Greenwood District were still in ruins. Into one of those spaces, the Tulsa KKK built a giant white building in 1923 at 501 N Main called Beno Hall.  The new building that housed the 3,000 member klavern served as a constant reminder to the black community of Tulsa’s racial supremacy. From there, Klansmen terrorized the traumatized black citizens. It was also here that the “Tulsa Benevolent Society,” a front group for the KKK, oversaw the supposed rebuilding of the Greenwood area.

In the early 1930s, the building was sold and became several other businesses until in God’s providence, a revival tent was set up next door at 601 N. Main.

In a vacant lot under the shadow of Standpipe Hill, Pentecostal Holiness pastor, Steve Pringle, set up a revival tent and began conducting services. He invited a popular young evangelist named Oral Roberts to conduct meetings in May of 1947.  There, in the shadows of Tulsa’s past, Roberts reclaimed lives for the gospel. During the nine week campaign, Oral Roberts made front page headlines when a man shot at him during a service. From that point, crowds swelled to over 2,000 a night.  Roberts meetings were so popular that Pringle began to think of a permanent home for his new converts. Naturally, he had his eye on the large building next door, the infamous Beno Hall.  Pringle worked to remodel the 1,800 seat building and named it “Evangelistic Temple.”

Evangelistic Temple (Pentecostal Holiness Church)

Some who have told this story believe that the white Pentecostal congregation would be perfectly at home in a building that was once a symbol of white supremacy. But this  certainly misses the providential power of this moment. The reclaiming of Beno Hall through the popularity of Oral Roberts is not coincidental.  Over the next few years, Roberts became a pioneer in racially integrating his healing meetings around the US.  As a report from a 1949 Tacoma Healing Crusade comments, “They came, old and young, white and colored, from all portions of the tent.”  But when he was home, Evangelistic Temple became the Roberts’ home church.  From this home base, as pointed out in my recent article in Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology, Roberts used his position to challenge racial predjudice in American and in Tulsa.

By the mid-1960s, Evangelistic Temple had moved south to 53rd and Peoria and the old white building was eventually torn down. Today, it is a vacant lot. Whereas Beno Hall was erected as a symbol of white supremacy’s power to tear down a black community, today that vacant lot is a monument of the power of the gospel to tear down prejudice and reclaim spaces.

(The view north on Main. The empty lot  is where Beno Hall/Evangelistic Temple once stood. The building in to the north is where the tent crusade took place in 1947. To the right is Standpipe Hill. To the south is Cain’s Ballroom.)

Read more about Oral Roberts’ legacy of racial reconciliation in Tulsa “Healing for All Races” in Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology  here.