Introduction from The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 by Mary E. Jones Parrish
For those hearing about the 1921 Tulsa race riot for the first time, the event seems almost impossible to believe. During the course of 18 terrible hours, more than 1,000 homes were burned to the ground. Practically overnight, entire neighborhoods where families had raised their children, visited with their neighbors, and hung their wash out on the line to dry had been suddenly reduced to ashes. And as the homes burned, so did their contents, including furniture and family Bibles, rag dolls and hand-me-down quilts, cribs and photograph albums. In less than 24 hours, nearly all of Tulsa’s African American residential district—some 40 square blocks in all—had been laid to waste, leaving nearly nine thousand people homeless.
Gone, too, was the city’s African American commercial district, a thriving area located along Greenwood Avenue that boasted some of the finest Black-owned businesses in the entire Southwest. The Stradford Hotel, a modern 54 room brick establishment that housed a drugstore, barbershop, restaurant, and banquet hall, had been burned to the ground. So had the Gurley Hotel, the Red Wing Hotel, and the Midway Hotel. Literally dozens of family-run businesses—from cafes and mom-and-pop grocery stores to the Dreamland Theatre, the Y.M.C.A. Cleaners, the East End Feed Store, and Osborne Monroe’s roller-skating rink—had also gone up in flames, taking with them the livelihoods, and in many cases the life savings, of literally hundreds of people.
The offices of two newspapers—the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun—had also been destroyed, as were the offices of more than a dozen doctors, dentists, lawyers, realtors, and other professionals. A U.S. Post Office substation was burned, as was the all-Black Frissell Memorial Hospital. The brand new Booker T. Washington High School building escaped the torches of rioters, but Dunbar Elementary School did not. Neither did more than half a dozen African American churches, including the newly constructed Mount Zion Baptist Church, an impressive brick tabernacle that had been dedicated only seven weeks earlier.
Harsher still was the human loss. While we will probably never know the exact number of people who lost their lives during the Tulsa race riot, even the most conservative estimates are appalling. While we know that the so-called official estimate of nine whites and 26 Blacks is too low, it is also true that some of the higher estimates are equally dubious. All told, considerable evidence exists to suggest that at least 75-100 people, both Black and white, were killed during the riot. It should be added, however, that at least one credible source from the period—Maurice Willows, who directed the relief operations of the American Red Cross in Tulsa following the riot—indicated in his official report that the total number of riot fatalities may have run as high as 300.
We also know a little, at least, about who some of the victims were. Reuben Everett, who was Black, was a laborer who lived with his wife Jane in a home along Archer Street. Killed by a gunshot wound on the morning of June 1, 1921, he is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery. George Walter Daggs, who was white, may have died as much as 12 hours earlier. The manager of the Tulsa office of the Pierce Oil Company, he was shot in the back of the head as he fled from the initial gunplay of the riot that broke out in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse on the evening of May 31. Dr. A. C. Jackson, a renowned African American physician, was fatally wounded in his front yard after he had surrendered to a group of whites. Shot in the stomach, he later died at the National Guard Armory. But for every riot victim’s story that we know, there are others—like the “unidentified Negroes” whose burials are recorded in the now yellowed pages of old funeral home ledgers—whose names and life stories are, at least for now, still lost.
By any standard, the Tulsa race riot of 1921 is one of the greatest tragedies of Oklahoma history. Walter White, one of the nation’s foremost experts on racial violence, who visited Tulsa during the week after the riot, was shocked by what had taken place. “I am able to state,” he said, “that the Tulsa riot, in sheer brutality and willful destruction of life and property, stands without parallel in America.”
Indeed, for a number of observers through the years, the term “riot” itself seems somehow inadequate to describe the violence and conflagration that took place. For some, what occurred in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921, was a massacre, a pogrom, or, to use a more modern term, an ethnic cleansing. For others, it was nothing short of a race war. But whatever term is used, one thing is certain: when it was all over, Tulsa’s African American district had been turned into a scorched wasteland of vacant lots, crumbling storefronts, burned churches, and blackened, leafless trees.
Anyone who lived through the riot could never forget what had taken place. And in Tulsa’s African American neighborhoods, the physical, psychological, and spiritual damage caused by the riot remained highly apparent for years. Indeed, even today there are places in the city where the scars of the riot can still be observed. In North Tulsa, the riot was never forgotten—because it could not be.
But in other sections of the city, and elsewhere throughout the state, the riot slipped further and further from view. As the years passed and, particularly after World War II, as more and more families moved to Oklahoma from out of state, more and more of the state’s citizens had simply never heard of the riot. Indeed, the riot was discussed so little, and for so long, even in Tulsa, that in 1996 Tulsa County district attorney Bill LaFortune could tell a reporter, “I was born and raised here, and I had never heard of the riot.”
How could this have happened? How could a disaster the size and scope of the Tulsa race riot become, somehow, forgotten?
Nowhere was this historical amnesia more startling than in Tulsa itself, especially in the city’s white neighborhoods. “For a while,” noted former oilman Osborn Campbell, “picture postcards of the victims in awful poses were sold on the streets.” More than one white ex-rioter “boasted about how many notches he had on his gun.” But in time, the riot, which some whites saw as a source of local pride, came to be regarded more generally as a local embarrassment. Eventually, Osborn added, “the talk stopped.”
So, too, apparently did the news stories. For while it is highly questionable whether—as has been alleged—any Tulsa newspaper actually discouraged its reporters from writing about the riot for years on end, the riot does not appear to have been mentioned in the local press.
Despite such official negligence, however, there were always Tulsans through the years who helped make it certain that the riot was not forgotten. Both Black and white, sometimes working alone but more often working together, they collected evidence, preserved photographs, interviewed eyewitnesses, wrote about their findings, and tried, as best as they could, to ensure that the riot was not erased from history.
None, perhaps, succeeded as spectacularly as Mary E. Parrish, a young African American teacher and journalist. Parrish had moved to Tulsa from Rochester, New York in 1919 or 1920, and had found work teaching typing and shorthand at the all-Black Hunton Branch of the Y.M.C.A. With her young daughter, Florence Mary, she lived at the Woods Building in the heart of the African American business district. When the riot broke out, both mother and daughter were forced to abandon their apartment and flee for their lives, running north along Greenwood Avenue amid a hail of bullets.
Immediately following the riot, Parrish was hired by the Inter-Racial Commission to “do some reporting” on what had happened. Throwing herself into her work with her characteristic verve—and, one imagines, a borrowed typewriter—Parrish interviewed several eyewitnesses and transcribed the testimonials of survivors. She also wrote an account of her own harrowing experiences during the riot and, together with photographs of the devastation and a partial roster of property losses in the African American community, published all of the above in the book Events of the Tulsa Disaster [republished in 2021 as The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921]. While only a handful of copies appear to have been printed, Parrish’s volume was not only the first book published about the riot—and a pioneering work of journalism by an African American woman—it remains, to this day, an invaluable contemporary account.
Introduction by John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth excerpted from The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 by Mary E. Jones Parrish, published by Trinity University Press. For more information, please visit www.tupress.org.