Charles William Kerr

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Charles William Kerr
Born April 2, 1875
Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania
Died July 18, 1951
Tulsa, Oklahoma
Education McCormick Theological Seminary
Spouse(s) Anna Coe
Children Hawley, Margaret
Website The Grandfather Kerr Clan Webpage
Church First Presbyterian Church Tulsa, Oklahoma
Ordained 1898
Offices held
Moderator, Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (1932)

Charles William Kerr (2 April 1875 – 18 July 1951) was a Moderator of the General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church in the United States, as well as the longtime pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the second largest Presbyterian church in the United States. Kerr was the first permanent Protestant Christian pastor in Tulsa, arriving in 1900.

He was the only Protestant minister who was individually recognized for his efforts to prevent the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, and to provide shelter for refugees from the violence of that event.[1]

Life and work[edit]

Kerr was born April 2, 1875, to Mr. and Mrs. T. A. Kerr in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.[2] The Kerrs were an old Scots Presbyterian Lowland family who had immigrated to western Pennsylvania in the 19th century.

Kerr graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Slippery Rock Normal Teachers College (now Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania) in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. He studied for the Presbyterian ministry at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (a forerunner of the present Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), then transferred to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, graduated in 1898 and was ordained.[2]

On 6 September 1898, Kerr married Anna Elizabeth Coe, born on 6 April 1876. The Coes were Pennsylvania abolitionists who participated in the pre-Civil War underground railway to assist escaping slaves. On their wedding day Charles and Mrs. Kerr left Pennsylvania for Edmond, Oklahoma Territory as Presbyterian missionaries to the Indians and freedmen (Blacks freed from slavery) living in what is now Oklahoma. They had two children, Hawley and Margaret.

Move to Tulsa[edit]

On Saturday, February 10, 1900, Kerr said that he was "called" to be pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, then a sleepy Creek Indian village in Indian Territory at the crossing of the Frisco and Midland Valley Railroad tracks. His first church was a gothic-styled clapboard wooden church. Kerr was the first permanent Protestant Christian pastor in Tulsa, and the only one until the Baptists obtained a resident minister in 1906. As an early day missionary, Kerr frequently went to Tulsa's "skid row" on First Street to pray, kneeling in the gutter with drunk cowboys on Friday and Saturday nights to lead them to Christ.[citation needed]

The 1901 discovery of crude oil transformed Tulsa into a boomtown — the "Oil Capital of the World" — as well as transforming the Kerrs' original missionary vocation to Indians and Freedmen into the pastorate of an all-white church. Tulsa rapidly grew from a population of 600 to 72,000 by 1921: 60,000 whites and 12,000 Blacks. Tulsa's Black district was named "Greenwood". Early on, Kerr made friends with the Black pastors in Greenwood, who were publicly disdained by Tulsa's other prominent white clergy.

Reverend Kerr and the Tulsa Race Riot[edit]

Main article: Tulsa Race Riot

On the afternoon and evening of May 30, 1921, a large crowd of white people began assembling outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse at 6th Street and Boulder Avenue. The size of the crowd was estimated at two thousand people.[1] Many of these demanded that the sheriff turn over Dick Rowland to them, clearly indicating that they intended to lynch the young man. The sheriff was determined to prevent a lynching and refused their demands. Instead, he and several armed deputies barricaded the building. In the early evening, the sheriff addressed the crowd and told them to go home.

Meanwhile, some of the black clergymen called Reverend Kerr on the telephone and asked for his assistance. After discussing the situation with his family, Kerr responded by going to the courthouse and pleading with the would-be lynch mob to go home.[1] He was one of the very few civic leaders to do so. The mob ignored his plea and continued threatening to storm the building.

The next day, after armed whites invaded the Greenwood district, black clergymen again called Kerr for assistance. On his own, not waiting to meet with the church session (the governing body of any Presbyterian church), Kerr opened the church basement to temporarily house refugees from the violence.[1]

Anecdotal information[edit]

According to a family website called "The Grandfather Kerr Clan Webpage":[3]

His favourite story as a guest preacher in Greenwood churches was that of the African, Simon of Cyrene, a Black man who was a gardener with two sons named Alexander and Rufus (common names in Greenwood):

Jesus was condemned by his own people. The sentenced was carried out by the Romans who represented white people. Representing all persons of African descent — past, present, and future, Simon of Cyrene was the only person in Jerusalem willing to help Jesus carry his Cross. As a result of the help given to Him by Simon of Cyrene, all people of African descent have a very special place in Jesus' heart: Now in Glory Jesus stands ready to reciprocate the help given to Him by Simon of Cyrene by answering their prayers. The ministry of service begun by Simon of Cyrene in helping Jesus carry his Cross to Calvary is continued by helping someone with a burden.

Kerr often brought food and clothes to, prayed with, and found jobs for the many homeless people (Black, white, and Indian), living under Tulsa's 11th Street Bridge, forgotten by oil-rich Tulsans.

After the Dawes Act of 1877 led to the Land Run of 1889, Indians lost most of their territory to usurping Southern poor whites and the petroleum industry. Having personally witnessed Indians being swindled out of their lands and rights with whiskey, Kerr became the foremost temperance crusader in Oklahoma.

Kerr's sense of social justice motivated him to sponsor an annual Labour Day service for all trade union members at Tulsa's First Presbyterian Church to encourage democratic unionism as a vehicle for needed social, economic, and political change. He opposed from his pulpit attempts by the local oilmen to bust unions.

Kerr held annual summer tent revivals in the vacant lot next to the Tulsa County Courthouse. He brought guests speakers such as Billy Sunday, William Jennings Bryan, and Carrie Nation to Tulsa. As a fellow temperance crusader, Nation frequently stayed with the Kerrs in their home, where she organised raids against the illegal sale of liquor in Tulsa.


In 1932, Kerr was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.[4]

Kerr was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1934.[5]

Retirement and death[edit]

Kerr retired as Senior Minister at First Presbyterian in April, 1941 and became Pastor Emeritus. He then became Chaplain of Hillcrest Memorial Hospital in Tulsa. He died on July 18, 1951.[2] He was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery on July 20, 1951. His wife was buried beside him on March 24, 1969.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d Ellsworth, Scott. "The Tulsa Race Riot."
  2. ^ a b c Chronicles of Oklahoma, "Necrologies: Charles William Kerr", p. 510.[]
  3. ^ The Grandfather Kerr Clan Webpage
  4. ^ Time "Religion:Churches v. Council."June 6, 1932. Available on line. [1] Accessed October 6, 2010.
  5. ^ "Oklahoma Hall of Fame". Retrieved November 16, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Index to Burials Rose Hill Cemetery Tulsa, Tulsa County, Oklahoma."[2] Accessed October 7, 2010

External links[edit]

Religious titles
Preceded by
The Rev. Lewis Seymour Mudge
Moderator of the 144th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
Succeeded by
The Rev. John McDowell