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Making History Today: The University of Tulsa - Its Roots

The convergence of the Arkansas, Grand, and Verdigris Rivers in east central Oklahoma  was known in the early 19th century as Three Forks. It was the center of what became known as the Creek Indian Nation. Today it is better known as Muskogee, Oklahoma. Fort Gibson is where the three rivers actually come together, but it is virtually part of the Greater Muskogee area. The original name of Muskogee was Muscogee, meaning Creek Nation.

Under the leadership of Rev. John Elliott, First Presbyterian Church of Muskogee was organized on April 18, 1875. In 1861 Rev. Henry Kendall, a native of New York and who attended Auburn Theological Seminary, became the general secretary of the Board of Home Missions. Under his guidance in 1882 the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls was established and housed at First Presbyterian Church in Muskogee. 

Alice Robertson, daughter of Presbyterian missionaries who taught Creek Indians at a school in Tullahassee, Oklahoma. When that school burned down in December,1880, Alice went to teach at the Creek Indian school in Okmulgee. In 1885 she was appointed to lead the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls in Muskogee. In addition to her duties as principal, Robertson made trips “back east” to raise money for the school – for tuition, faculty salaries, and for buildings. However, with the opening of a public school in Muskogee, enrollment flagged. 

In 1892 Rev. William Robert King graduated from Union Seminary in New York and was immediately appointed by the Board of Home Missions to serve as pastor of the Presbyterian church in Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation. Soon he was also charged to supervise the various missions under the direction of the Women’s Executive Committee of the Board of Home Missions. King began to persuade the Synod of Indian Territory to support an institution of higher education. Without success there, he went to the Board of Home Missions in New York where his idea was welcomed. It was there that he proposed the name of Henry Kendall College which was enthusiastically approved. 

Initially, Henry Kendall College served Kindergarten through college. However, while the Synod of Indian Territory enthusiastically supported the school, at least three factors led to its demise in Muskogee: (1) the growth of public school enrollment and the corresponding decrease in enrollment at Henry Kendall; (2) the lack of interest and support among white Presbyterian  churches and pastors (many of whom were sending students to the newly founded University of Oklahoma in Norman); and (3) the interest in purchasing the school’s land by local businesses. 

First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, led by its pastor, Rev. Charles W. Kerr, hosted the newly-relocated Henry Kendall College which opened on September 18, 1907, the same year Oklahoma became a state. According to Divided Hearts: The Presbyterian Journey through Oklahoma History, “When Tulsa ‘won” Henry Kendall College, the sum of its private endowment was exactly five hundred dollars, an amount that Mrs. William Jennings Bryan had given it to support loans for needy Indian girls” (p. 161). By 1917 that figure had grown to $500,000, due primarily to a gift from a Tulsa churchman, Earl Harwell. 

In 1917 the PCUSA’s General Home Mission Board filed a formal protest with the school because “the trustees of Henry Kendall College [were] declining to admit adult Indian men to the College.” When the Home Mission Board filed a formal protest, the trustees responded “that a program to educate adult full blood Indians might destroy what had been built in Tulsa” (quoted in Divided Hearts, p. 161). With the Synod’s endorsement of the trustees’ action, “school trustees destroyed the school’s original Indian identity.” 

Because the issue of land in Muskogee was being negotiated, the College had two campuses. Such issues having eventually been resolved, the Henry Kendall College officially became the University of Tulsa on December 16, 1921. The University identified itself with the “northern Presbyterian Church.” Southern Presbyterian Church institutions in the state included the Presbyterian College in Durant, Dwight Mission (near Marble City), and the Goodland Indian Orphanage (near Hugo, Oklahoma). 

With the oil boom in the early 20th century both the city of Tulsa and the University grew. A College of Law was begun in 1925. In 1928 the board of trustees removed the University from church control and was “no longer a Presbyterian school.” In 1994, however, on the occasion of the school’s 100th anniversary, “Presbyterians undertook several initiatives to patch up and renew bonds that had not always been carefully nurtured.” In that centennial year “the university’s board of trustees, which had once been dominated by the Presbyterian church, and the Synod of the Sun reaffirmed their shared mission, renewed the bonds of faith, and signed a covenant cementing the relationship. This time the relationship was one not of control and influence but of cooperation” (Divided Hearts, pp. 293-4). The school’s website identifies the University as a private, non-denominational school. 

Today, in addition to a school of arts and sciences and a law school, the University has a business school and a graduate school. According to the University’s website, enrollment is 3,769 students (2,647 undergraduates and 1,122 graduate and law students). Dr. Jeff Francis has served as the Sharp chaplain since January of 2005 and was the Associate University Chaplain for five years before becoming chaplain. The University was the initial recipient of the papers of Eugene Peterson, well-known Presbyterian writer and author of The Message. However, according to Francis, those papers are now lodged with Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. 

For the past several years the University of Tulsa has hosted the Synod Youth Workshop, a gathering of youth from around the Synod of the Sun for learning, inspiration, and service. With over a hundred years of service the University of Tulsa continues to make history today. 

(Sources for much of the information in this column came from Guy William Logsdon’s 1977 history of the University of Tulsa;  Michael Cassity and Danney Goble’s Divided Hearts: The Presbyterian Journey through Oklahoma History (2009); the website of the University of Tulsa; and a conversation with Dr. Jeff Francis, Sharp Chaplain at the University of Tulsa). 

The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest exists to “stimulate and encourage interest in the collection, preservation, and presentation of the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage” in the Southwest. If you are not a participating member of the Society and would like to become one, the annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per couple. Annual institutional and church membership dues are $100. Checks may be made out to PHSSW and sent to: 

PHSSW – 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.

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