On May 31, 1921, the progress of race relations in the United States came to a terrifying halt in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Provoked by a small group of armed Black residents protecting a young man from an almost certain lynching, an angry white mob of thousands brutally attacked and destroyed what had been a thriving Black residential and business district, burning it to the ground and depriving residents of their homes and livelihoods.
That event, now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, is “believed to be the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” according to scholar Scott Ellsworth, writing for the Oklahoma Historical Society. Hundreds, by some accounts, were murdered by a coalition of police and white citizens in a warlike scenario that would reverberate for generations.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the event, Trinity University Press is releasing on May 25 The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, a first-person account by survivor Mary E. Jones Parrish.
At the time, Parrish was a 29-year-old journalist, teacher, entreprenuer, and single mother who braved the violence to doggedly track down facts, figures, and fellow survivors to record the scope of devastation as accurately as possible for the historical record.
Her account was initially published in 1923 in an edition of 26 copies, mostly ignored by the wider community and nearly lost to history as the massacre was largely overlooked. Those copies now reside in rare book collections and fetch thousands of dollars on the open market, though the text is legally in the public domain.
In an ongoing effort to diversify and broaden the scope of Trinity University Press publications, publisher Tom Payton had kept an eye out for interesting manuscripts, with the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre in mind.
While researching, he found that Parrish’s account had once been republished, but again in a small run of only 200 copies as a fundraiser for the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, located in Tulsa.
Encountering the text was “luck, chance, serendipity,” Payton said, garnered through voracious reading driven by his involvement with local Black Lives Matter protests following the police murder of George Floyd.
Payton said he was aware that many books about the 1921 massacre were soon to be published but felt that reprinting the only first-hand account in a widely available edition would be a vital addition to the national conversation.
In the 1920s, the Tulsa neighborhood known as the Greenwood District was affluent enough to earn the nickname “Black Wall Street” from activist Booker T. Washington. The success of 10,000 enterprising Black citizens drew white envy and resentment, however, which came to a boil after the Tulsa Tribune ran a specious story about a supposed assault on a 17-year-old white girl.
Hearing rumors of a lynching, Black leaders gathered in an effort to protect the accused young Black man. Their group of 30 was confronted in front of the courthouse by a white mob of hundreds. Both groups were armed, and after a shot was fired, several members of both groups lay dead. The police chief deputized and armed the white mob, and Black citizens were pursued back to the Greenwood District, where the assault would grow through the night until the entire 35-block neighborhood lay in ruins, leaving thousands homeless.
Parrish witnessed the massacre from the home where she lived with her daughter Florence, and though the two escaped harm, Parrish stayed in Tulsa to fulfill a commission from a local community leader to report on what had happened.
Parrish’s 100-page account is searing in its attention to harrowing detail, including hails of bullets from National Guard machine guns and incendiary bombs dropped from airplanes, as though Greenwood had become an echo of the World War I battlefields from which Black veterans had recently returned.
Of those “brave boys [who] gave their lives to make the world safe for democracy,” she writes mournfully, “We pray that God will be merciful and never let these noble [veterans], whose life blood stains the soil of ‘No Man’s Land,’ know that their loved ones and friends, whom they left behind, have been made to suffer.”
Echoes of 1921 today
Parrish’s great-granddaughter Anneliese Bruner notes this unfortunate irony in an afterword commissioned by Payton. Bruner praises the surviving veterans for their “fervor to fight against anti-democratic practices at home as vigorously as they had abroad,” while noting that “the deployment of the machinery of war against civilians showed the willingness of authorities to attack Black Americans with the utmost lethality.”
Bruner makes direct comparisons between the events of Tulsa in 1921 and the America of today, writing that the white mob who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020, was a direct descendent of the “King Mob” her great-grandmother had written about 100 years earlier. Parrish had warned with haunting resonance that “today the hand of King Mob is being felt in all parts of the United States, and he is no respecter of persons, race, or color.”
In an essay for The Lily published in the wake of the Capitol riot, Bruner described her harsh realization that the “marauders” of 1921 also “rejoiced at the misfortune they caused – not unlike the brazen, gleeful scenes of this year’s mob inside the Capitol.”
Calls for reparations for the Tulsa massacre have gained ground as the 100-year anniversary approaches, bolstered in part by the question of broader reparations for slavery.
A current Human Rights Watch effort does not specify a recommended monetary figure to address reparations, but Parrish’s meticulousness provides a starting point.
In the final section of her book, Parrish duly recorded as many losses of residences, businesses, schools, churches, medical facilities as she was able, noting their worth. Totaled, monetary losses amount to at least $1.8 million in 1921 dollars. In 2021 dollars, the total would equal a minimum of $26.6 million.
“There is no way that you can separate people’s need for healing from resources,” Bruner said by phone from her home in Washington, D.C. “So, yes, I believe wholeheartedly in reparations.”
Payton revealed that the publication is drawing the attention of major national media, in part because of general awareness raised by the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police and the extrajudicial killing of Ahmaud Arbery. These and other recent incidents have drawn national protests and calls for police reform, including locally.
“From a journalistic point of view, this is the perfect human angle to an otherwise giant, tragic story, so people are really latching on to it,” Payton said.
A previously published preface and introduction in the new edition by scholars Ellsworth and John Hope Franklin address the lingering effects of the events of 1921, and the book as a whole reverberates with contemporary resonance.
The title, drawn from Parrish’s text, grimly highlights the urgency she brought to the question of racial conflict rivening the U.S. of the early 20th century.
On Page 84 of her original edition, Page 90 of the new book, she wrote: “The nation must awake to what lynch law and race riots are costing it,” after charting the growing trend of racial violence in other parts of the country.
“There was a larger kind of pleading that she was making about America and about the future of democracy,” Payton said.
Trinity University Press will host a free virtual conversation with Bruner, Ellsworth – who also has a new book on the massacre – and local scholar Carey Latimore at 6:30 p.m. May 20 in collaboration with The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.
The John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation will host a national symposium May 26-29 titled “The Future of Tulsa’s Past: The Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre and Beyond,” featuring Bruner and Ellsworth along with scholar Cornel West.