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Vernon AME Church to receive preservation help for stained glass windows from national grant
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Vernon AME Church to receive preservation help for stained glass windows from national grant

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Vernon AME Church (copy)

The Rev. Robert Turner shows the aging windows at Vernon AME Church, which will benefit from a $150,000 grant from the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World file

With a third of the money coming from local donors, one of Tulsa’s most treasured historic landmarks will receive a national grant to help preserve it for future generations, officials announced this week.

Vernon AME Church rose from the ashes of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, with the survivors who built it inscribing their names in the stained-glass windows.

“They’re not just windows,” said the current pastor, the Rev. Robert Turner. “They’re a monument and a memorial to the people who, in some cases, gave everything they had to build this place. It’s a testament to their faith.”

The windows, in desperate need of stabilization and restoration, will benefit from a $150,000 grant from the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, federal officials said.

Vernon AME will receive the largest of 27 grants this year totaling $1.6 million nationwide for the preservation of sites that are significant in African American history. Ten Tulsa residents and former residents contributed $50,000 to the church’s grant, but they asked to remain anonymous, officials said.

The congregation played a crucial role in the Greenwood District’s recovery after the infamous Race Massacre left thousands of African Americans homeless and at least 37 people dead.

The building was in use but still under construction when white mobs set fire to 35 square blocks of Tulsa on June 1, 1921. The next Sunday, Vernon AME borrowed chairs from a funeral home to have worship services in the remains of the church’s gutted basement, according to the Tulsa World archives.

Rebuilding efforts started with $3,000 in the church treasury and a $400 gift from a church conference in California. Parishioners sold chicken dinners and organized fashion shows to raise another $1,100, but it took seven long years to finish a new building, all while the entire Greenwood District was recuperating.

Once completed, it became a symbol of the community’s resilience and a local hub for the civil rights movement.

Rev. Turner hopes the new grant, administered through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will become seed money for a wider fundraising effort to restore the church building.

“It’s a blessing from God,” the pastor said. “The grant means that the National Trust and the Action Fund have realized what a historic treasure this place is. Hopefully, Tulsa will realize it, too, and step up.”

Vernon AME launched a campaign last year to pay for an extensive list of restoration projects that the church estimated could cost as much as $1 million.

Other historic sites to receive a grant include the late blues performer Muddy Waters’ house in Chicago and the Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, where activists organized the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968.

Oklahoma City will receive a grant for the Brockway Center, which served as the headquarters of the Oklahoma City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs for almost 50 years, and the Lyons Mansion, constructed between 1912 and 1926 by a local African American entrepreneur.

“The Action Fund was created out of the recognition that we in the field of preservation needed to do more,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “We realized that the American story we often tell repeatedly negates the transformative contributions of African Americans whose capability, intellect, and creativity were and still are invaluable to the building of this nation.”


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Tulsa Race Massacre: The photographs

Michael Overall

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