The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: My Family’s Story, America’s Shared History
By Anneliese Bruner
The first time the police followed me, I was a fifteen-year-old girl walking to school one morning. Most days I would have been wearing a middy with a sailor collar and cuffs, atop a blue pleated skirt. But that particular day was “free dress,” one of the rare opportunities for freedom from the monotony and regimentation of our uniforms, a chance to wear to school whatever outlandish 1970s outfit we chose to express ourselves. Striding up Jackson Street in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood to what was then the upper school campus of the Katherine Delmar Burke School for Girls—wearing my favorite and only pair of platform shoes and a midsize Afro—I noticed a passing black and white slow down when the police officer who was driving saw me.
At that age I was already wary of the police. I had spent eight years of childhood in East Oakland, where police violence against people in my community was rampant, replete with helicopters in the nighttime sky shining high beams on the neighborhood.
So, walking in San Francisco, those three blocks to school from the bus stop seemed interminable. The police didn’t just trail me to see where I was going that morning; they circled each successive block as I walked, coming back around to Jackson Street to follow my progress block by block. They wanted me to know they were there. Their goal was intimidation. I was breathless by the time I slipped through the school door but ready to carry on with my day at the exclusive school for the daughters of San Francisco’s first families.
I didn’t learn about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 until I was an adult—and read the book my great-grandmother wrote about it. My father, William Bruner Jr., who was raised in Tulsa for part of his childhood, never mentioned the massacre to me when I was growing up. We had a fractured, divorced household, and too much time and energy were consumed in navigating the logistics of spending time together and managing the dynamics of a blended family. I did not have much time alone with my dad, and it took many years for us to have a relationship that permitted us to talk openly and without friction about the things that matter deeply.
I had been living in Washington, D.C., for about ten years in the early 1990s, when my father presented the book to me on one of my annual visits home to California. He was all hush-hush as he pulled the book out of an old manila envelope, letting me know he was entrusting it to me. He acted like someone sharing a secret. Inscribed to my father from a Jones family member, the little red book was slim and compact. I was mystified by his behavior, and he offered the scantest of explanations. I knew he wanted me to do something, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. I was only in my midthirties, but he had started calling me the matriarch of the family, a label that made me uncomfortable. The book was yet another opportunity to explore more about the family and my place in it that neither of us knew how to take.
Back home in D.C. I read the book in one sitting and was overcome with anger and grief for what Tulsa’s African American community endured and for the planting of the seeds of individual and family trauma that bloomed later in the lives of people who were dear to me when I was a child— my father and his younger brother, my Uncle Richard, and my grandmother Florence, who features as Mary Jones Parrish’s young daughter in the book.
I also learned that Tulsa, however imperfect, was more than a place where people came to make money—it was a space where Black people ran their community with some autonomy and authority. In 1921 it was a nexus of Black wealth, ambition, and pride, teeming with independent, educated people like my great-grandmother, Mary Jones Parrish, and returning World War I veterans like my great-grandfather on the other side of the family, Richard Harrison Bruner. I do not know if he was in Tulsa at the time of the event, but the veterans who gathered to rescue Dick Rowland from lynching represented a fervor to fight against antidemocratic practices at home as vigorously as they had abroad.
The Greenwood community in 1920s Tulsa was the proverbial village that embraced and encouraged its residents, animated by the vitality and industry of the people who lived within its boundaries. Greenwood was the entity that permitted them to dream of achieving the rights, rewards, and responsibilities of full participation in the civic life of their community and country. It was a space for them to realize the individual self-determination and prosperity that embodied the American ideal but also to harness the same cooperative spirit that had buoyed African Americans through enslavement, an incomplete Reconstruction, and the draconian racial practices that followed in the wake of Reconstruction’s disruption under such legislation as the Compromise of 1877. This failure sabotaged the progress that should have propelled African Americans and the nation toward full civil rights.
Like other Americans, Black Tulsans served their country during the war, but they could not have imagined that planes would fly over their community and shoot and firebomb the whole of it as if it were enemy territory.
More than anything, the deployment of the machinery of war against civilians showed the willingness of authorities to attack Black Americans with the utmost lethality. There was little daylight between state actors and the vicious mob in their hatred and deadly intent toward Black people. Black lives did not matter to Whites who resented “uppity Negroes,” nor to local government, which sought to appropriate the land Black Wall Street occupied to satisfy its appetite for growth.
The elements that contributed to the disaster—the view of Black equality as anathema to the natural social order, official complicity in mob violence, and weaponization of legislation in service to monied interests—still animate the American landscape we inhabit today. Here was a well-to-do community where people were living up to expectations of the larger society. Nevertheless, they were attacked and their lives upended on a pretext, set upon by a violent mob eager to destroy or seize by force the trappings of a community’s success. Homes were looted and burned, and White people laughed openly at the newly created unfortunates. Professionals and laborers alike were left destitute and without recourse, as all they had worked for was stripped from them. Dignified men had to flee without even a hat on their heads.
We know that Tulsa’s police department deputized White men to control, and even destroy, Black lives and livelihoods, as the community defended itself against lynching and property theft and destruction. The ease of such a decision is recognizable in today’s casual criminalization of Black Americans. Random activities can turn into a deadly confrontation with law enforcement. The freedom that is promised to all Americans is conditional for Black Americans, driven by arbitrary measures of whether they are intelligent enough, industrious enough, humble enough, nonthreatening enough, innocent enough, patriotic enough, and so on.
But in an enlightened society people who are free are not required to prove they are worthy. Fundamentally, no human has the authority to grant humanity or worth to another. That quality stems directly from our existence, and any system that assumes that authority is simply not credible. Nevertheless, fear caused by the abuse of power at the institutional level can cause Black people to try to prove they are respectable and deserving enough, spinning their wheels in the untenable, unwinnable game of approval seeking in a system that has not evolved past abusing them as it maintains the powerful myth of righteousness. Paradoxically, by internalizing the measure of worth imposed by a skewed system, those being unfairly judged often strengthen the pernicious fiction that one group is authorized to decide the humanity of another.
American history provides abundant examples of others taking it on themselves to define or proscribe Black life and humanity and to dole out abuse accordingly. Earlier this year, 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. It became clear that some Americans would prefer an authoritarian state to a democracy where all people receive equal protection, consideration, and benefit.
The rebuilding that followed the Greenwood tragedy was remarkable and speaks to the agency and resilience of that wounded community to band together quickly in common purpose to provide immediate support, for both practical needs and redress under the law. The community knew how to tap their own resources and secure help from national networks of Black civic organizations. African Americans clearly did not accept the social circumstances that hindered them, but they were pragmatic in facing and addressing the situation as it was. And they undoubtedly realized that starting over somewhere else would not solve the intractable racial animus, which was widespread, that motivated the White people who had attacked them.
But the outward trappings of revitalization should not gloss over the human toll of such large-scale upheaval. The survivors lived through a warlike attack, with methods perfected abroad and then unleashed on Americans, the likes of which we now know inflict post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor syndrome with adverse effects that can last indefinitely. With their lives at risk—because no one could be sure that the same or worse wouldn’t happen again at any time—some stayed, but some decided to leave everything they knew behind for a new beginning elsewhere.
Disruption is a catchword today, but its grotesque implications for life in Tulsa a hundred years ago created scores of internally displaced persons who forged new lives in other parts of the country without the benefit of compassion or aid to get resettled, as still happens across the globe. The repercussions can be felt in the lives of families like my own. Our links to family history were broken as the memories were suppressed by custom, time, and distance, and we lost some of the context that could have helped us make sense of where we were and some of the pain we felt.
In January, after the attempted coup d’état at the Capitol, I published a story in the Lily about my family’s experience surviving the race massacre. A friend who read my piece told me he cried after realizing it was about Tulsa. His great-grandparents lived through the same event my great-grandmother and grandmother had. They were a solidly middle-class family, but the massacre literally drove them out of Tulsa. They migrated to Detroit, where my friend’s grandmother was born, and the family has struggled since. My friend worked hard and is now the epitome of an American success story, but that does not excuse or provide a so-called silver lining to the dark cloud of what his family endured. The hardship that generations of his family carried from the trauma of being hated by their own government and fellow citizens remains a burden.
I lived through the riots of 1960s Oakland, where the community had a reactive relationship with policing; serious, credible allegations of extreme and brutal practices kept tensions high. As I read about the Tulsa events for the first time, I was reminded of those days. The riots were a reaction to systemic abuse and not the abuse itself, as was the case in Tulsa, but I imagined the human reaction was the same: fear and uncertainty. In Tulsa, people’s homes were looted and torched. In Oakland, Seventy-Third Avenue needed to be widened so that Athletics and Raiders fans could travel from the I-580 down to the Oakland Coliseum in a straight shot through the heart of East Oakland. Our neighbors’ homes were loaded on wide-load flatbed trucks and carted away like children’s toys to who knew where. In Tulsa, planes strafed and bombed the neighborhood. In Oakland, helicopters buzzed at night, disrupting our peace. To be clear, there was more than that to life’s daily routine in our humble but loving neighborhood, but violent policing and ruthless land development were constants directly from the days of Tulsa—and before. We understood the world we inhabited.
And Mary Jones Parrish understood the world she inhabited. I wondered what I could do with the stories of the lives that were lived, lost, or redeemed in that crucial time—carefully chronicled in my great-grandmother’s book—to make more people aware of this tragedy and the ultimate injustice of impunity for the perpetrators. Tulsa’s crisis was part of a recognizable pattern that played on repeat in that era, underlining an entrenched commitment to a brutal, dehumanizing system that drove society’s abuses of its African American members.
So when the Capitol insurrection unfolded, I recognized what I was seeing. It was the culmination of four years of an administration that had terrified me from its inception for its promise of cruelty. But the worst part was the sense of normalcy that was being thrust on us by leaders who deliberately and determinedly refused to acknowledge the danger of the worst public health crisis in generations and who downplayed the justness of community outrage and protests in the face of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a uniformed police officer. Instead, these two defining circumstances of 2020 were weaponized in furtherance of a regressive, racist agenda, in the face of which the public was bombarded with messaging that ran counter to objective reality and moral norms. The U.S. president downplayed the lethality of a pandemic, the likes of which had not affected humanity since 1918, when he knew of the widespread disease and death that would result. While the country was reeling from COVID-19, mass public protests in reaction to Floyd’s murder were mischaracterized as evidence that the Black Lives Matter movement was a violent antigovernment movement committed to anarchy.
When a new president was elected and the tide was poised to change from the dangerous direction the country was taking, the world watched a last-ditch effort by a regressive, bigoted cabal and its reactionary mob unfold. Aware of the global context and implications of the events of her time, Mary Jones 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.” For her, the national political landscape had international implications. Americans and people abroad expressed a common desire for self-determination, where they could be free to work and live in peace and contribute to society and the world.
As others have been, across time, across geography, across genders, and across peoples, Mary Jones Parrish was a fully realized person, aware of the world and her place in it. She was comfortable in her skin and confident in her abilities. She and women like her were exemplars: vulnerable yet not powerless, empowered yet not superhuman. So why does history have so little to say about her? Why don’t more people know about her contribution to interpreting and preserving the history of this pivotal event in American history? Because the powerful shape the historical narrative.
Mary Jones Parrish survived the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, but her legacy almost did not survive erasure. The tragedy would have been all of us being deprived of the voice of the person who told the stories that mattered, the stories of everyday African Americans with normal families, dreams, ambitions, troubles, and lives who were pursuing a normal existence in a great American city. Racist tropes pathologizing Black behavior seek to absolve society’s attitudes and actions in distorting the arc of Black life, bending reality with their ability to define what is true. The progress African Americans made in the years after bondage should have been celebrated by our country and compatriots. Instead, progress was punished.
In the current era of historic firsts by African Americans, we must recall that the firsts are not overdue because Black people weren’t ready—it is the country that wasn’t ready.
When my daughter was an infant, we were in California staying with my mother, who happened to be dating a White guy at the time. He was driving, and my mother was in the front passenger seat. My daughter, Portia, was in her car seat in the back, happily babbling, as I sat beside her. We were on the I-280, heading down the Peninsula from San Francisco. The Sneath Lane exit came and went, and I casually mentioned that my grandfather died in World War II in Burma and was buried just down the hill in Golden Gate National Cemetery. The boyfriend declared, “That’s impossible.”
Tsgt. Bruner, who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, was Florence Parrish Bruner’s husband and Mary Jones Parrish’s son-in-law. My father was eight years old when he died, and my Uncle Richard was six. The family never recovered.
I continued to gaze out the window, declining to dignify his pronouncement with a reply. I didn’t have anything to prove.
Excerpted from The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 by Mary E. Jones Parrish from the afterword by Anneliese M. Bruner; published by Trinity University Press. For more information, please visit www.tupress.org.