It’s been 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre — one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. An armed white mob attacked Greenwood, a prosperous Black community in Tulsa, Okla., killing as many as 300 people. What was known as Black Wall Street was burned to the ground.
“Mother, I see men with guns,” said Florence Mary Parrish, a small child looking out the window on the evening of May 31, 1921, when the siege began.
“And my great-grandmother was shushing her, saying, ‘I’m reading now, don’t bother me,’ ” says Anneliese M. Bruner, a descendant of the Parrish family. But the child became more insistent.
“And so, my great-grandmother put down her reading and went to see what her daughter was talking about. And indeed, the street was populated with people with guns,” Bruner says. “Bullets were flying everywhere, and they fled trying to reach safety at a friend’s home.”
Bruner is able to tell the harrowing story today because her great-grandmother Mary E. Jones Parrish, a teacher and journalist, survived and documented the massacre in her self-published memoir, Events of the Tulsa Disaster.
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Sitting on her porch in Washington, D.C., Bruner flips through the pages of her family’s copy, which she keeps carefully stored in a plastic bag.
“The book is a small red volume, hardcover, somewhat worn,” Bruner says. “The pages are a little brittle.”
In the book, Parrish described her heroic escape from the angry mob and her risky return to Greenwood to document the truth of what happened. She included photographs and eyewitness accounts from others, and also recounted the myriad obstacles to rebuilding imposed by the city of Tulsa. In the appendix of the red hardcover, Parrish recorded the value of the property destroyed or taken, including her own two apartments and the secretarial school she operated.
Bruner shows the author photo inside Events of the Tulsa Disaster, her great-grandmother’s memoir.
Nate Palmer for NPR
But the book is more than just a historical account. It’s also Parrish’s plea for America to live up to the promise of democracy.
“My soul cries for justice,” she wrote. “How long will you let mob violence reign supreme?”
Bruner believes her great-grandmother’s words are a message for the nation today amid the quest for a racial reckoning. She’s worked to get the memoir republished in conjunction with the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre under the title The Nation Must Awake.
“How do you get past the trauma, the hurt, the pain, the fear, the chaos without truth?” Bruner asks, “and that is what Mary Jones Parrish brings — the truth.”
The scene was horrific a century ago when the armed white mob, fortified by law enforcement, descended on Greenwood, an all-Black district just north of downtown Tulsa. Two days of bloodshed and destruction ensued, by land and air. Despite efforts to protect their property, Black residents were outnumbered and outpowered. Eyewitnesses recalled the specter of men carrying flaming torches through the streets to set fire to homes and businesses. Then came martial law, and the arrests and internment of thousands of African Americans.
The massacre had been sparked by reports that a 19-year-old Black man had allegedly offended a 17-year-old white female elevator attendant. The murky incident got blown out of proportion by inflammatory newspaper accounts.
Black residents stand outside the entrance to a refugee camp on the fairgrounds in Tulsa after the massacre. Tulsa, and the nation, have been slow to acknowledge the brutal reality of what happened in 1921 and the lasting impact it’s had on Black families.
Library of Congress
While events in Oklahoma over the next few weeks will seek to examine the legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 years later, it hasn’t always been that way. Historical records were mostly destroyed, and for decades it was called the Tulsa Race Riot, implying it was somehow a two-sided battle.
Tulsa — and the nation — have been slow to acknowledge the brutal reality of what happened in 1921 and the lasting impact it’s had on Black families.
“This actually was something that was akin to an act of war where the country turned in on its own citizens,” Bruner says.
In addition to the loss of life, there was more than $1 million in property losses that would amount to more than $20 million today. Before the massacre, the Greenwood district was considered one of the most affluent all-Black communities in the country, a mecca for African American culture, business and prosperity.
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“It was a community of self-sufficient people,” Bruner says. “They had a great sense of themselves and their place in the world — exercising their agency and full rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”
It was a heritage to be proud of, yet one Bruner didn’t learn about until she was in her 30s, she says, when she visited her father in California and he gave her the little red book and revealed this part of her family’s history.
“I was speechless, stunned, amazed, proud, sad. I was grief-stricken,” she says.
It helped explain some of the trauma in her family. For instance, her grandmother, who escaped the massacre as a young child, struggled with alcoholism.
Bruner, an editor in her early 60s, has been on coronavirus pandemic lockdown with her grown children over the last year, so they’ve had time to consider the legacy of Tulsa and the family’s heritage.
“To be the descendant of a survivor, and then for that survivor to have the presence of mind to write that down and to have the clarity of thought for it to be so detailed, so meticulously put together, is just the source of pride,” says Kevin Hurtt, Bruner’s 33-year-old son, a biologist and science teacher.
In earlier generations the story of Tulsa was rarely passed down from victims to descendants because of fear of retribution, and Bruner suspects perhaps even some shame for having endured such abuse. Hence the long-kept secret.
Bruner’s daughter, Portia Hurtt, is a 31-year-old lawyer. She finds it hard to contemplate that not only her family, but everyone who lived in Greenwood was disinherited from what their ancestors had built there.
“Looking back now, I know how the story ends,” she says, fighting back tears. “This can be a theme in African American families where you have to do everything right. And if something comes along and derails you, that can reverberate through generations.”
Bruner says that the country needs to be humble and acknowledge what the Tulsa Race Massacre did to African Americans, otherwise, there is no moving forward.
“There are people whose psyche is still affected generationally; trauma after trauma after trauma just continues to build on itself,” Bruner says. “And none of it gets resolved if you’re in a system that sometimes has the unequal application of law and/or opportunity.”
Bruner sees a toxic line from Tulsa to violence against Black people today, and says the same questions apply.
“Who’s going to be held accountable?” she asks. “Are reparations going to be made? Is there going to be any official admission of responsibility?”