Three Forks History: Kerr brought Kendall College to Tulsa

In 1885, the Presbyterian Mission was operating a small school for Native American girls in Muskogee. The school sat next to the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Second Street and Okmulgee Avenue. But the girls school was struggling financially, so the church asked Alice Robertson to assume leadership of the institution.

Robertson proved to be a capable manager and was able to raise funds to enlarge the school and offer more classes, including the new study of Home Economics. The school was named Minerva Home for Girls after a benefactor. Within a few years this school had become so successful the Presbyterian Mission chose to make it co-educational and offer classes for boys as well. The name of the school was changed to Henry Kendall College named for a Presbyterian missionary who had long worked in Indian Territory.

Kendall College quickly outgrew the Minerva Home location. The school moved to a larger building across the street. Now it could offer both high school and college-level classes. In time, the school moved again. This time, on land donated by Chief Pleasant Porter, Kendall built several large brick buildings. The campus occupied a multi-block area in what is today the Kendall Place Historical District.

At the time that Kendall College was moving to its new location, the Presbyterian Church in Tulsa recruited a pastor named Charles Kerr. He had been pastoring a church in Edmond but moved to Tulsa with his family in 1900. Under Kerr’s leadership, this small mission church grew quickly to become one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in the country. Kerr oversaw construction of a beautiful Gothic-style church in downtown Tulsa.

In 1907, Henry Kendall College suffered a fire and the damage proved quite expensive. The Presbyterian school faced the decision of rebuilding in Muskogee or moving to Tulsa. It was the Rev. Kerr who led the push to have the school moved to his community. With financial incentives provided by members of the congregation, Kerr was successful in securing land just a few miles from the church to build a new campus for Henry Kendall College.

In 1921, the school changed its name to the University of Tulsa. That same year, Dr. Kerr is reported to have opened the basement of his church to provide refuge for women and children fleeing the destruction of the Greenwood District during the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Through the years Kerr retained a close relationship to the school that Alice Robertson had helped to establish. He served as a trustee of the school for 43 years. He retired as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in 1941. He then went on to serve as chaplain of Hillcrest Memorial Hospital.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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