By Stephen Magagnini, OBSERVER Editor-In-Chief
In the aftermath of World War I, the 40-block Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, represented the hopes and dreams of thousands of Black Americans, many of whom had fought for their country.
Known nationwide as the Black Wall Street, it became one of America’s most prosperous neighborhoods regardless of race. It had two newspapers, several theaters, schools, churches, a YMCA and a hospital. Greenwood Avenue bustled with 70 businesses, rows of cars and people who felt secure and free to finally realize their American dream after centuries of oppression. Black Americans flocked to Tulsa to be a part of it.
Then, on the night of Tuesday, May 31, 1921, that dream turned into an epic three-day nightmare now considered the worst act of racist violence and murder in American history.
A 19-year-old Black shoe shiner, Diamond Dick Rowland, had been riding in an elevator with elevator operator Sarah Page, a 17-year-old White girl, when he apparently stepped on her foot. Somehow, the story morphed into “Black man sexually assaults White woman,” and though Page declined to prosecute, word spread that Whites planned to lynch him – sadly, an all too frequent occurrence. So 70 Black men, many of them veterans, rushed to the sheriff’s department to try and stop it.
Soon, gunfire erupted between White vigilantes and Black soldiers. A White mob — some of them deputized and given weapons — launched an all-out offensive against Greenwood, with machine gun nests, snipers and an assault from the air, where vigilantes in planes bombed the neighborhood and strafed fleeing Blacks, including women, children and seniors. White vigilantes invaded Black homes and businesses, stole whatever they wanted, and then burned them down. More than 1,000 homes went up in flames and the district was reduced to rubble and ash.
Some 10,000 people were left homeless. As many as 400 people died – nearly all of them Black – but most were quickly buried in mass graves so there was no evidence of the massacre.
The Tulsa Massacre was rarely spoken of, and there’s no record of anyone being held accountable. It wasn’t until 2001 that the state of Oklahoma officially acknowledged the massacre – which had been called a “race riot” in the local newspapers – was perpetrated by a White mob with the backing of city officials and law enforcement.
But one woman who survived the massacre, Mary E. Jones Parrish, a 27-year-old teacher, journalist and mother, wrote a vivid firsthand account and included the recollections of several dozen other survivors, including doctors, lawyers, teachers, Bible students, business people and grandparents. Her book, “The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921” – was privately published in 1923. Her great-great-granddaughter, Anneliese M. Bruner, was handed the manuscript in 1993 by her father. This year, the historic account was reissued by Trinity University Press.
Ms. Bruner, a writer who grew up in Oakland and San Francisco, said she’d never heard a word about the massacre before she read Parrish’s book.
“Amnesia is emblematic of a social phenomenon that shames victims of abuse or misfortune,” Ms. Bruner said in a recent interview. “It is easy to see how it plays out in domestic violence situations, where victims are silent for fear of retribution or because the powerful person, or society in general, feels comforted by loading the least powerful with blame to maintain the status quo … the powerless are left to deal with trauma as best they can, most often without support.”
Ms. Parrish’s lessons from the 1921 massacre ring all too true today, Ms. Bruner said. Ms. Parrish wrote, “My eyes well with tears and my soul cries for justice. Oh America! Thou Land of the Free and Home of the Brave! The country that gave its choicest blood and bravest hearts for democracy! How long will you let mob violence reign supreme? Is democracy a mockery?”
Ms. Bruner said that question was amplified in January “when a White mob violently attacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the certification of votes for the rightfully elected president of the United States after record numbers of African Americans exercised their political power.” Parrish had predicted, “If King Mob continues to rule it is only a matter of time until we shall witness some of the scenes of Russia enacted right here on our shores.”
E. A. Loupe, a plumber who survived the massacre, told Ms. Parrish it was spurred by “all the hate and revenge smoldering for years … I have noticed a growing racial hate by the lower Whites because of Negro prosperity and independence.”
Not all Whites felt this way – Ms. Parrish’s book includes examples of White Red Cross workers, nurses, state troopers and business people who stepped up to try and stop the carnage and quickly stepped in to help the survivors get back on their feet.
“The challenge is to cultivate a humanity within that makes an event like Tulsa impossible, not to ask what Black people can or should do,” Ms. Bruner said. “Knowledge of the massacre provides a roadmap for a country still grappling with its sense of self. It is not open for debate that there is a huge gap between our ideals and our practice.”
With voting and civil rights under assault, Americans must face up to the Tulsa story just as we must confront “the long-standing bias, abuse, and violence ingrained in our institutions,” Ms. Bruner said. “African Americans need support in our struggle to heal ourselves and move forward, and we should not be shy about expecting and asking for it in whatever form.
“Honestly assessing the forces that led to Tulsa provides a microcosm of the American social and political landscape. Heeding the lesson of Tulsa will be key to articulating a vision for a better America.”