A Century After The Race Massacre, Tulsa Confronts Its Bloody Past
Survivors and their descendants say facing the truth about the Tulsa Race Massacre is essential in the nation's struggle to confront racial injustice and violence against Black people.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This morning, we begin to mark one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history. We're coming up on 100 years since the Tulsa, Okla., massacre when a white mob attacked a thriving Black community, killing as many as 300 people. The few survivors still living say confronting the truth of the Tulsa Race Massacre is part of the nation's larger struggle for racial justice today. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The scene was horrific on May 31, 1921, when an armed white mob, fortified by law enforcement, descended on Greenwood, the prominent African American neighborhood in Tulsa. A two-day siege ensued by land and air.
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ELDORIS MCCONDICHIE: I was asleep, and my mother awakened me. She says, Eldoris, Eldoris, get up so I can get you dressed. The white folks are killing the colored folks. I was so afraid because bullets were coming down around us. The planes were up in the air shooting down.
GEORGE MONROE: All of us were in the house when we saw coming up the walk to the front of the house four men with torches in their hands.
VERNICE DUNN-SIMMS: When we came back, nothing but the ground, home burned down, everything, nothing left.
ELLIOTT: That was Eldoris McCondichie, George Monroe and Vernice Dunn-Simms in oral histories recorded by the Tulsa Historical Society. The Greenwood massacre was sparked by reports that a 19-year-old Black man had allegedly offended a 17-year-old white female elevator attendant. While events in Oklahoma over the next few weeks will examine the legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre a century 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 back in 1921 and the lasting impact it's had on Black families.
ANNELIESE BRUNER: This actually was something that was akin to an act of war where the country turned in on its own citizens.
ELLIOTT: That's Anneliese Bruner. Her great-grandmother, Mary Jones Parrish, escaped the attack with her young daughter 100 years ago and survived to write a book about it. Sitting on her porch in Washington, D.C., Bruner flips through the pages of her great-grandmother's self-published memoir.
BRUNER: The book is a small, red volume. The pages are a little brittle.
ELLIOTT: Mary Parrish was a journalist and an educator. She lost her home and the school she operated. The book describes her escape and risky return to document the truth of what happened in 1921, including eyewitness accounts from others. But it's more than just the story of what happened. 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 it's a message for the nation today, and she's worked to get the memoir republished in conjunction with the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It's titled "The Nation Must Awake."
BRUNER: How do you get past the trauma, the hurt, the pain, the fear, the chaos without truth? And that is what Mary Jones Parrish brings, the truth.
ELLIOTT: Bruner reads from a section of the book that documents the value of property destroyed or taken - 40 square blocks in all left in a smoldering ruin.
BRUNER: Earl Real Estate Company, R.T. Bridgewater, physician, Mrs. Mary E.J. Parrish, school, two apartments...
ELLIOTT: Millions of dollars in property losses, destroying the wealth created by Black Wall Street. A heritage to be proud of, yet a heritage Anneliese Bruner didn't learn about until she was in her 30s when her father gave her the little red book and revealed this part of her family's story.
BRUNER: I was speechless, stunned, amazed, proud, sad. I was grief-stricken.
ELLIOTT: Bruner says knowing that history helps 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 pandemic lockdown with her grown children over the last year, so they've had time to consider the legacy of Tulsa. Her son, Kevin Hurtt.
KEVIN HURTT: To be the descendent 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 a source of pride.
ELLIOTT: But in earlier generations, there was fear of retribution and Bruner suspects perhaps even some shame for having endured such abuse, hence the long-kept secret. Her daughter, Portia Hurtt, 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.
PORTIA HURTT: Looking back, now I know how the story ends. And this is sort of 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.
ELLIOTT: Her mother sees a toxic line from Tulsa to violence against Black people today.
BRUNER: We still are asking these same questions from the time of Tulsa. Who's going to be held accountable? Are reparations going to be made? Is there going to be any official admission of responsibility?
GT BYNUM: When you talk about reparations, the challenge is that it means different things to different people.
ELLIOTT: Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum.
BYNUM: There is an acknowledgement that Black Tulsans have not had the same shot at success and a great life that white Tulsans have had over the last 100 years.
ELLIOTT: An official acknowledgment that first came in 2001 when a state commission found that the city of Tulsa had conspired to destroy Greenwood and recommended restitution. Since then, a scholarship fund was established and memorial projects have been funded. Bynum, who is white, says there's support for addressing disparities but resistance to cash reparations.
BYNUM: Where does that come from? It would necessarily have to come from a tax levied on this generation of Tulsans, and the idea of financially penalizing this generation of Tulsans for something criminals did 100 years ago, that's a hard thing to ask.
ELLIOTT: But survivors and their descendants are asking in a lawsuit against the city that seeks a host of reparations, financial compensation and restitution, including the redistribution of land to the families of Greenwood's original land owners. Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simons represents the three known living survivors of the race massacre. He believes the pushback on reparations is rooted in the country's historical notion of race and the view dating to slavery that Black citizens aren't entitled to the same rights as white citizens.
DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMONS: Anybody that does not believe in truth, justice and reparations for the people of Greenwood, then you don't believe in truth, justice and equity, period.
ELLIOTT: He says, part of the difficulty in getting the white establishment on board in Tulsa is that their families directly benefited from the massacre and in some cases participated in it.
SOLOMON-SIMONS: They don't want to discuss the real aspects of it because then they're talking about their fathers, their grandfathers, their uncles.
ELLIOTT: For descendant Anneliese Bruner, truth and accountability are key, a belief reinforced as she watched the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
BRUNER: It was a frightening prospect, knowing what I know about what happened in Tulsa when, as my great-grandmother called it, King Mob was in charge.
ELLIOTT: Bruner says the nation, and in particular Black Americans, should not be living with that same fear 100 years after the Tulsa Race Massacre. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
MARTIN: This story was co-reported and produced by NPR's Marisa Penaloza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.