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Legacy and impact

Remembering MLK’s visit to North Tulsa, 50 years after his death

First Baptist Church North Tulsa, 1414 N. Greenwood Ave.

Chris Williams

I moved into the Greenwood neighborhood a little over a year ago. My house is on a cul-de-sac less than a block away from First Baptist Church North Tulsa (FBCNT). My backyard faces North Greenwood Avenue, a street steeped in history, lined with plaques commemorating buildings destroyed during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. FBCNT piqued my interest from the moment I was told Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken there in 1960. On Sundays I would drive by and watch members file in, almost envious of the sense of community that seemed to reverberate from its heavy wooden doors.

Little did I know that not only had MLK spoken there, but other historical figures—Justice Thurgood Marshall, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, among others—have also graced the pulpit of FBCNT.

The church we see today, located on North Greenwood Avenue, just south of East Pine Street, began with five families congregating in a small building around a wood-burning stove. It is unknown if the founders were freedmen or settled in Indian Territory during the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. As the weekly meetings gained congregants, they outgrew their small space and moved into their first church at 902 E. Archer St. in 1899, eight years before Oklahoma reached statehood. The original church has since been torn down but was one of few that survived the Race Massacre.

“Our church was on the south side of Archer; the rioters actually thought it looked too nice to be a black church, so they just bypassed it, came and got the ones on the other side of Archer,” said FBCNT’s senior pastor, Rev. Anthony L. Scott.

In 1953, FBCNT moved from their original location to the building they reside in today, a three-story brick building with cement stairs leading to two sets of large off-white doors. Just below the stairs a plaque—titled “In Memoriam BLACK WALLSTREET 1921”—gives a brief history of the church.

In late March, I finally had the opportunity to attend a service. Anticipation knotted my stomach as I walked up the stairs and into the unfamiliar space. Inside, I gazed at the stained-glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross, oblivious as to how lost I must have appeared. An usher asked me if I needed help and led me down the aisle of crimson carpeting to the office of Rev. Scott.

My anticipation turned into guilt for interrupting what surely was preparation for the Sunday service. The reverend closed his Bible and greeted me with a smile and a handshake.

“Our church is the oldest African-American church in North Tulsa, but [MLK] having been here really solidified our church as kind of being a go-to church when certain situations would arise,” said Rev. Scott.

31-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. came to the church on July 28, 1960, and spoke to 1,500 people. His speech touched on the importance of unification: “We must all live together as brothers or we will die together as fools.” He also spoke about the importance of voting, stating one of the most impactful steps a member of the black community can take is “the short walk to the voting booth.”

“I think that even resonates … with all the young people [at the March for Our Lives], because that’s their position: ‘Either you can listen to our voice or we will speak on a ballot,’” Rev. Scott said. “I feel even his March on Washington has a link to other movements—where [D.C.] becomes the place where people feel if we go and we march and assemble … we can bring about change.”

April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination. Rev. Scott believes MLK’s legacy lives on in his church’s social justice and advocacy roles.

“[MLK] was the first one to kind of mobilize—particularly the black church—nationally, to try to bring a change in society. I think that role and that legacy where churches come together to try to bring about social change … and where the community comes to the church to see how they can have a role in resolving tensions in society—I think his legacy continues to have an impact from that standpoint.”

Corean Barnett has been a congregant of FBCNT for 58 years and was there with her daughters, aged 11 and nine, the day MLK visited.

“I walked down with my two daughters,” Barnett said, “and the church was full. I had to sit in the balcony. I hadn’t been a member here that long, but the most I remember, I knew it was a large crowd. It was a freedom rally—but it was more like a sermon.”

Barnett recalled that much of what she heard from MLK that day came from Amos 5:24, which he later used during his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the March on Washington in 1963: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

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