The Women Who Preserved the Story of the Tulsa Race MassacreHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, 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.
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