Culture

The Women Who Preserved the Story of the Tulsa Race Massacre


After teaching an evening typewriting class, Mary E. Jones Parrish was losing herself in a good book when her daughter Florence Mary noticed something strange outside. “Mother,” Florence said, “I see men with guns.” It was May 31, 1921, in Tulsa. A large group of armed Black men had congregated below Parrish’s apartment, situated in the city’s thriving Black business district, known as Greenwood. Stepping outside, Parrish learned that a Black teen-ager named Dick Rowland had been arrested on a false allegation of attempted rape, and that her neighbors were planning to march to the courthouse to try to protect him.

Soon after the men left, Parrish heard gunshots. Then fires lit up the night sky as the buildings just west of her home began to burn. The effort to protect Rowland had gone horribly wrong, resulting in a chaotic gun battle at the courthouse. Now a heavily armed white mob was pressing down on the entirety of Greenwood, bent on violent retribution. Parrish, who lived just north of the railroad tracks that divided Tulsa’s two segregated worlds, watched from her apartment window as the mob grew. She observed a pitched skirmish between white and Black shooters across the railroad tracks, then saw white men haul a machine gun to the top of a grain mill and rain bullets down on her neighborhood. Instead of running away, Parrish remained in Greenwood and documented what she saw, heard, and felt. “I had no desire to flee,” she recalled. “I forgot about personal safety and was seized with an uncontrollable desire to see the outcome of the fray.”

The thirty-one-year-old was an eyewitness to the Tulsa Race Massacre, which left as many as three hundred people dead and more than a thousand homes destroyed. Though Parrish had previously found success in Tulsa as an educator and entrepreneur, the massacre compelled her to become a journalist and author, writing down her own experiences and collecting the accounts of many others. Her book “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” published in 1923, was the first and most visceral long-form account of how Greenwood residents experienced the massacre.

When the attack faded into obscurity in the ensuing decades, so did Parrish and her small red book. But, since the nineteen-seventies, as the event slowly gained national attention, Parrish’s work became a vital primary source for other people’s writings. Yet her life remained unknown, even as the facts that she had gathered—such as several firsthand accounts of airplanes being used to surveil or attack Greenwood—became foundational to the nation’s understanding of the massacre. She was, quite literally, relegated to the footnotes of history.

As the centennial of the race massacre approaches, a raft of documentaries, along with a new thirty-million-dollar museum, are poised to make the story of Greenwood more widely known—and financially lucrative—than it has ever been. But the Black Tulsans who preserved the community’s history risk being forgotten, particularly the women who did the foundational heavy lifting. It’s not just Parrish—Eddie Faye Gates, an Oklahoma native and longtime Tulsa educator, continued Parrish’s work by interviewing massacre survivors more than seventy years later, recording their perspectives in books and video testimonials.

History lessons draw power from their perceived objective authority, but if you drill to the core of almost any narrative you will find a conversation between an interviewer and a subject. In Greenwood, Black women such as Parrish and Gates were the ones having those conversations. Now descendants of both women are working to insure that their legacies are recognized. “She was a Black woman in a patriarchal, racist society, and I think bringing all those elements together tells you exactly how she’s been erased,” Anneliese Bruner, a great-granddaughter of Parrish, said. “It’s convenient to use her work, but not to magnify and amplify her person.”

In 1921, Mary E. Jones Parrish was a relative newcomer to Tulsa. Born Mary Elizabeth Jones in Mississippi in 1890, she spent some time in Oklahoma in her early adulthood, giving birth to her daughter Florence in the all-Black town of Boley, in 1914. (In 1912, she had married Simon Parrish.) Soon after having Florence, Parrish migrated to Rochester, New York, where she studied shorthand at the Rochester Business Institute.

Parrish was called back to Oklahoma, where her mother was ailing in the town of McAlester. Six months after Parrish arrived, her mother passed away. Around 1919, Parrish settled in Tulsa, attracted by the friendly faces and collaborative enterprises in Greenwood. The neighborhood was home to two movie theatres, a jeweller, a small garment factory, a hospital, a public library, and many restaurants, dance halls, and corner dives. In her book, Parrish describes the thrill of stepping off the Frisco railroad and into a world of Black-owned businesses and well-kept homes. She dubbed the community the “Negro’s Wall Street,” one of the first documeted uses of a now iconic phrase. “I came not to Tulsa as many came, lured by the dream of making money and bettering myself in the financial world,” she wrote, “but because of the wonderful co-operation I observed among our people.”

She opened the Mary Jones Parrish School of Natural Education on the neighborhood’s most popular thoroughfare, Greenwood Avenue, and offered classes in typewriting and shorthand. She was one of many female entrepreneurs in the neighborhood who never received the same level of renown as their male counterparts. “When we talk about Greenwood, it usually is a very male-focussed story,” Brandy Thomas Wells, a professor at Oklahoma State University who specializes in Black women’s history, told me. “The day-to-day activities of those businesses depended upon the invisible labor of women.”

During the massacre, Parrish lost everything. But, instead of leaving town, she remained in Greenwood. As the neighborhood smoldered, she immediately realized how important it was to bear witness to what had happened to her community. The attack destroyed the offices of Tulsa’s two Black-owned newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun; the former never resumed publishing. The city also had two white-owned newspapers—the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune—which published stories blaming Black people for their own community’s destruction. There was little space in the city for Black residents to explain what had happened to them in their own words.

Several days after the massacre, Parrish was approached by Henry T. S. Johnson, a Black pastor who also served on a statewide interracial commission aimed at improving race relations. At the commission’s behest, he asked Parrish to interview survivors and write down what they had endured. Parrish was intrigued. “This proved to be an interesting occupation,” she wrote, “for it helped me forget my trouble in sympathy for the people with whom I daily came in contact.”

Parrish collected first-person accounts from about twenty massacre survivors. Collectively, their stories captured every major phase of the attack and its aftermath. Some had fled northward in the middle of the night, amid torrents of gunfire. Others were snatched from their houses by members of the white mob and taken to internment camps situated around the city. Nearly all returned to find their homes either burned or looted. “I feel this damnable affair has ruined us all,” Carrie Kinlaw, a survivor who rescued her bedridden mother during the shooting, told Parrish.

Parrish’s book challenged many of the false narratives that Tulsa city officials had spread about the massacre. The planes that circled above Greenwood, the authorities claimed, were used only for reconnaissance. Parrish and her sources said that they witnessed men with rifles climb aboard the aircraft and fire down on Greenwood residents. The white-owned newspapers cast the massacre as an aberration caused by supposedly mounting lawlessness in the city. Parrish said that the violence fit a broad pattern, and she connected it to recent attacks on Black communities in Chicago and Washington, D.C., during the Red Summer of 1919. She also proposed policy solutions that might help prevent such disastrous events in the future, including the passage of a federal anti-lynching measure. Parrish’s work placed her in the tradition of other pioneering Black female journalists, including Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching crusader, and Mary Church Terrell, who criticized the convict-lease system prevalent in the Deep South. “Just as this horde of evil men swept down on the Colored section of Tulsa,” Parrish wrote, “so will they, some future day, sweep down on the homes and business places of their own race.”

Parrish’s hundred-and-twelve-page book was published in 1923, two years after the massacre, thanks in part to the nine hundred dollars that Greenwood residents raised to help cover the printing costs. It was greeted with little fanfare. Few copies were printed, and the publication appeared to garner no mention at all in Tulsa’s white newspapers. (The Oklahoma Sun probably discussed it, but few issues of the paper from those years exist today.) Copies of the book sat in the closets and chests of local historians and massacre survivors, dug out on occasion as proof of what had happened.



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