In Tulsa, a pastor’s fight for reparations and racial justice

Our reporters touch base with a prominent pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, about the evolving fight for reparations in the city. This is an update to Part 1 of our podcast “Tulsa Rising.” 

Samantha Laine Perfas/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Robert Turner, seen here Sept. 30, 2020, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says reparations are crucial to any effort on the city’s part to wrestle with its racist past. “We need to digest and marinate on what we did to a group of people ... solely because they were Black,” he says. “I’m all for moving forward, working together. But let’s understand where we come from.”

Update: Rev. Robert Turner on reparations and healing

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When our reporters met the Rev. Robert Turner in September, he was deep in the fight for reparations for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Every Wednesday for two years, he’d marched from City Hall to the Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, the church where he serves as pastor. He’d preach to anyone who would listen about the need to repair the harm done to the Black community – in Tulsa and across the country. 

Now, as Tulsa commemorates the massacre’s centennial, we reconnect with Mr. Turner. He shares his frustrations over what he views as efforts to stall progress toward racial justice. He also talks about where he does see change, and what he hopes Tulsa can show the rest of the country.

“I hope they see if you hide from history, the problems don’t go away,” Mr. Turner says. “They only exacerbate them.”

This episode is an update to Part 1 of our podcast “Tulsa Rising,” which commemorates the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. To learn more about the podcast and find other episodes, please visit our page

This story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

Jessica Mendoza: Hi everyone, I’m Jessica Mendoza. 

Samantha Laine Perfas: And I’m Samantha Laine Perfas. 

Jess: And this is “Tulsa Rising,” a podcast by The Christian Science Monitor –

Sam: – where we take a close look at the legacy of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.

[Music]

Jess: We first reported this story in the fall of 2020. The George Floyd protests were still fresh, the U.S. presidential election hadn’t happened, and the pandemic was about to surge for the holidays. 

Sam: A lot has happened since then. So we called back some of the folks we spoke to to learn what 2021 has brought their way. Today, we hear from Reverend Robert Turner, pastor of Vernon AME, a church in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood neighborhood. 

Jess: We talk to him about everything from church renovations to his lifelong fight for reparations – which now includes the lawsuit that survivors and descendants of the massacre have filed against the city. We even ask him about the trial and conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who killed George Floyd. 

Sam: Reverend Turner also brings up a new law that’s causing a commotion in Tulsa and across the state. 

KFOR Oklahoma News 4 anchor: … one of the authors of House Bill 1775 … 

Sam: House Bill 1775 bans critical race theory from being taught in public schools in Oklahoma. Supporters say it protects kids from being shamed or indoctrinated. 

NewsChannel 8 Tulsa anchor: … that force children to submit to the Marxist and racist theology of critical race theory… 

Sam: Critics say it’s silencing conversations about race to pander to white fragility. 

KFOR Oklahoma News 4 anchor: … Oklahoma Public Schools Board says the bill was “an outright racist and oppressive piece of legislation…” 

Jess:  In fact, the governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, signed the bill into law in early May. And a few days later, he was kicked out of the commission that’s overseeing the centennial events. Anyway, Reverend Turner gets pretty fired up about the law.

Sam: If you haven’t yet, we recommend listening to Part 1, “Their Blood Still Speaks,” before you tune in to this interview. 

Jess: You can find the whole series, including the updates, wherever you listen to podcasts. Or you can visit csmonitor.com/tulsarising. Now: our conversation with Reverend Turner. 

[Music]

Sam: Hey, Reverend, thanks for joining us today. Our first question was, we were wondering if you’re still marching every week. 

Rev. Robert Turner: Yes, we are every single week we are marching. We meet in front of city hall and we protest. And during the winter months, we went to once a month. But we still meet every week in front of City Hall. Yes, ma’am.  

Sam: And then we were also – we saw in the news that it looks like you guys are restoring some of your stained glass windows. Can you talk a little bit about that, is that still happening?  

Turner: It is. It is. And not only is it happening, but the 17th of this month, the windows will return to Vernon and they should be completely installed by the 26th of May. Those are historic windows that have been here since the church was rebuilt after the racist massacre of 1921. It was built by the survivors, paid for by the survivors. It’s just remarkable that they have been able to last nearly 100 years. And I’m so excited to see what they paid for and built be restored and to be seen for generations to come. 

Jess: And it sounds like it’ll be just in time for the centennial as well.  

Turner: That’s right.

Jess: Could you describe the stained glass windows? What do they look like? And are they depicting anything in particular?  

[Music]

Turner: They are unlike anything you have ever seen in your life. The array of colors that are represented, the lilies, the tulips are there, the names of the individuals who donated to pay for them. Before the restoration, they were appraised at well over a million dollars. And after the restoration, I can only imagine what they will be appraised for.  

[Music]

Sam: I know you can’t really talk about specifics of the lawsuit, the reparations lawsuit, because it is ongoing. But we did notice that it looks like two new living survivors were identified and added. How did you feel about that when that happened? 

Turner: Oh, I feel – I feel great about it. And I’m happy. And I hope that if there are more survivors that they come out because we need all of them to join this suit. We need as much momentum as possible. We don’t want to leave anybody out.  

Jess: We’ve seen some interesting movement around reparations in other parts of the country. Evanston, Illinois, was in the news having approved sort of a reparations plan for their city. Congress was advancing slavery reparations bill. What are your thoughts on what it’s looking like, big picture, for this movement that you have been so deeply involved in on such a personal level for so long?  

Turner: Really, after I started the weekly protest, people at first were laughing, you know, and criticizing and then it turned from there to like – it became part of regular conversation. What is reparations and what would that look like? It’s so rewarding to see, like nationally it’s becoming a thing. I’ve been an advocate for reparations since, like high school, middle school. When I first found out about the horrors of slavery, you know, and the fact that our nation has never done anything to atone for it. It’s just really, really cool to go from that moment and from even my colleagues who believe in social justice, but have always thought reparations was just too much of an ask. You know, to see them, like, OK, it is something that we – we are due. In fact, I like to say it’s not due, it’s past due. 

Sam: Do you think this is a pivotal moment in our country when it comes to not just acknowledging our racist history, but moving towards actually repairing the damage it caused? Or how is this moment different or not different than moments like this in the past?  

Turner: That’s a wonderful question. So the same country that I just spoke highly of, as far as progress – that same country, though, you cannot look at this country and not just historically, but even under its current context, say “America is not a racist nation.” Every day that we don’t address those things that this country did, we are continuing the context that we’re criticizing. So it’s not enough for us to criticize redlining. It’s not enough for us to criticize Jim Crow. No, you need to address that. You need to repair that. Otherwise, you’re still operating from a racist framework. 

[Music]

And now parallel to that problem you have, in states like Oklahoma, we have a movement to remove any historical teaching of what I just said. They want to abandon critical race theory from public schools, not even just K-12, but colleges and universities. It was terrible to not know your history. Ignorance is something that we have to all strive to be relieved and liberated from. But what’s, to me, even more sad is to know this history, to know the horrors, and not only not do anything about it, but you don’t even want other future generations to know about it. I’m here in Tulsa, and we had the same situation happen after the 1921 Tulsa race massacre where it happened. People knew it happened, but they didn’t want anybody else to know about it. So they just didn’t teach it, and because they did not teach it, we have still never healed. And Tulsa is just a microcosm of America. 

[Music]

Jess: I wanted to ask you about the Derek Chauvin verdict and how that was received in the Black community in Tulsa. It’s interesting that that happened, you know, in the lead up to the centennial. So we’re just curious, where were Tulsa is at with that? Where you’re at with that?  

Turner: I was very much thankful to see the verdict in the Chauvin case. But the very fact, the very fact that the African-American community was on pins and needles, showed just how little faith we have in our justice system. And so I’m excited that this case actually shows one example of accountability. As a Black man in the same demographic as George Floyd, I felt a little bit more safe in this country after that verdict. 

Sam: What do you think that verdict means moving forward? 

Turner: Well, time will tell if that was an aberration or if that is a part of the new normal where Black lives will be seen as everybody else. So I would like to think it’s a turning point. But as a Black man in America, I can never get too excited about any so-called progress we have. 

[Music]

Jess: What are your dreams for the city coming out of this season?

Turner: Oh, my – my dreams for the city is that she truly fulfills her potential. Tulsa is a beautiful city with some amazing people who want to see change and who want to see true healing. And so I’m just hoping that Tulsa continues to grow closer to that more perfect city, where equity and justice reign and where healing can actually take place. 

Sam: I think I asked you this back in October, but a lot has happened since then, so I’m going to ask again: as the world turns its eyes to Tulsa, what do you hope other people from outside the city can learn about the experience Tulsa has gone through over the last hundred years?  

Turner: I hope they see if you hide from history, the problems don’t go away. They only exacerbate them. I hope they see a city that even 100 years later is still grappling with, how do we heal, how do we repair? I hope they see a city where people don’t run from their problems or at least, there are some civic community leaders that refuse to let injustice die. And I think every city has those type of people. And I think instead of shunning them, I think we ought to embrace and listen to them because they are speaking from a place of love and they’re speaking because they actually do want to bring people together. But as King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And we want justice everywhere.  

Sam: Well, thank you so much, Reverend Turner, for taking time today to chat with us and just update us on how things are going there.  

Turner: I appreciate you. You know, anytime you need me, I’m here.  

Jess: Thank you so much. 

Sam: Sounds good. We’ll talk to you later. 

Jess/Sam: Bye.

[Music]

Jess: Thanks for listening! Next time: What happens when your history is marked by such a huge failure of leadership? We explore the politics of Black Tulsa in Part 2 of Tulsa Rising: “The Illusion of Inclusion.” 

Sam: If you’re enjoying this series, please rate and review us! You can find all our episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. Or visit csmonitor.com/tulsarising.  

Jess: This episode was reported and produced by me, Jessica Mendoza. 

Sam: And me, Samantha Laine Perfas.

Jess: Edited by Clay Collins. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Additional audio elements from KFOR Oklahoma News 4 and NewsChannel 8 Tulsa. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.

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