LegalDr. Kerr offers resignation as
Pastor to seek justice for Greenwood Blacks racially oppressed
by the City of Tulsa:
Charles W. Kerr's intervention at the Courthouse on the night of
Tuesday, 31st May 1921 provoked a fire storm of indignation from
the Southern faction of his sectionally divided First
congregation was split almost 50-50 between Northern Unionist
and Southern Confederate fractions: The American Civil War had
ended less than sixty years before, and there were still many
Veterans from both sides still living.
Southern fraction of his Congregation attacked Dr. Kerr's
actions of turning the First Church into a Holyroodhouse-type
sanctuary for the Greenwood refugees, donating the Church's Boy
Scout camping equipment to the Black refugees, and, especially
for spending Church Funds without the express authorisation of
the Session of Ruling Elders:
Presbyterian Church law, the Elders
the Pastor -- governs
each local congregation. Strictly speaking under Church law,
should have called a meeting of the Session to open the Church
as a sanctuary and to spend Church Funds to care for the
his church's Boy Scout equipment for homeless Blacks:
sectional issue came to a 'head' when statements totaling
several thousand dollars for caring for the Greenwood refugees
were presented to the Elders for payment.
As at Ft. Sumter the Southerners fired the first shot:
Dr. Kerr had violated Presbyterian Church law by opening
the Church as a sanctuary and spending all
of that money without having obtained the required
consent of the Session of Ruling
prevent a split in the Congregation, both the Northern and
Southern Elders agreed to hold off-the-record
meetings to resolve this and related issues and to avoid
washing the Church's dirty linen
in public. Later,
the Session merely ratified
of all Blacks as
carriers of lice
the expense of
having the whole church
fumigated and the entire basement and kitchen
area of the
old domed First Church
toilets in the
which a Black woman
had sat. Southern
men were afraid of catching syphilis by touching bathroom door
knobs which Black men had used.
These Southerners angrily accused Dr. Kerr of needlessly
exposing them to 'Negro disease' by giving refuge in the First
Presbyterian Church to the Greenwood Blacks.
These Southerners refused to attend Sunday services
Dr. Kerr had the entire church
' … Tulsa
Kerr explained to these informal meetings of the Session
that as the
situation was an emergency
which could not be foreseen,
there was no time to contact the Session, and given the medieval tradition of
Churches as a place of refuge
the old Holyroodhouse sanctuary in Edinburgh, he felt it
appropriate under the circumstances to open the First Church
as a haven for the Black refugees.
Moreover, the very words of Jesus, Himself,
re Matthew 25 demand Christians to succour all refugees --
as would have Jesus,
respect to the Church monies used to feed, house, clothe, and
assist the refugees and the donation of Boy Scout equipment, in
a very dignified
manner Dr. Charles W. Kerr told the Session, 'Mrs. Kerr and I
have our life's savings. We
will be happy to reimburse the Church for the entire costs of
caring for these unfortunate Freedmen burnt out of their own
homes by this City who came to our Church looking for shelter as
did Joseph and Mary when they came to the Bethlehem Inn.'
Elders rallied to his assistance:
Dr. Kerr's actions reminded them of stories their own
grandparents had told them about the underground railroad days
before the Civil War and helping runaway slaves escape to
freedom. Some of the Northern Elders were quite wealthy.
They took up a collection amongst themselves to reimburse
the First Church for monies expended caring for the refugees.
A wealthy Northerner replaced all the Boy Scout camping
gear with even better equipment.
fulfillment of his solemn promise to the Blacks taking refugee
in his First Presbyterian Church, after the report of the four
lawyers Dr. Charles W. Kerr concluded that the only
possible means for obtaining substantive justice for the
injured Black people of Greenwood was by petitioning Congress to
conduct a formal Congressional Investigation of the Tulsa Race
War and for the Federal enactment of the needed Congressional
Charles W. Kerr wanted his Session of Ruling Elders to formally join with
him in submitting this Petition to Congress requesting a full
Congressional Investigation of the Tulsa Race War.
Dr. Charles W. Kerr privately requested the Ruling Elders in
another off the record meeting to join
in formally petitioning
hit the fan and it wasn't a hymnal:
as Jefferson Davis, the Southern Elders immediately threatened
to split the Congregation by succeeding from the First
Presbyterian Church. Moreover they threatened to form a new
congregation under Southern
the Confederate pro-slavery
of the Southern Elders declared in a private meeting called to
discuss the situation, 'A Preacher should not involve himself
with political matters. A
Preacher should stick to religion and saving souls.'
Other Southern Elders accused Dr. Kerr of running around
with 'a crowd of loose Nigger ministers'
and of 'supporting some of the most dangerous people in
Church (1900 - 1941)
Kerr replied, 'I am only seeking justice for the least of Jesus'
brothers as Scripture demands.
This Petition to Congress in which I am asking the
Session to join with me in
submitting does not
concern any issue of partisan politics.
The Petition is only concerned with obtaining substantive
justice for our aggrieved brothers in
this point, Dr. Kerr
thought it best to resign from his Pastorate and to leave
Tulsa for a new church in
He was still in his mid- forties,
he had a solid twenty-one year record of accomplishment
in Tulsa, and he
could easily have found a nice Northern Pastorate in some
Kerr felt that it
might be better for an entirely new man to take over as Pastor
who would not be burdened with his controversial record of
trying to assist the devastated Black people of Greenwood so
by the City of Tulsa.
thinking of the future well-being of the First Presbyterian
Church and the University of Tulsa,
both of which
he had built up during his
twenty-one years of Christian
Service in Tulsa, in
a very dignified manner Dr. Kerr offered his resignation to
another private meeting of the Session
told the Elders that given the continuing controversy over his
actions at the Courthouse and the internal disagreement within
the Congregation towards his assistance to the Greenwood
refugees … that in the interests of congregational unity he
felt that Tulsa's First Presbyterian Church would be better off
without him …and that he would start immediately looking for a
new pastorate in the North.
His formal resignation would be submitted
to the Session as
soon as a new pastorate had been located….