A century after an angry white mob stormed into and destroyed a prosperous Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street,” the city and the state as a whole are still reckoning with the devastation and tremendous loss of life that occurred. For the descendants of Greenwood residents who survived the Tulsa Race Massacre, it is also a moment to grapple with the legacy of what was lost, the heroism of their ancestors and where exactly to go from here.
“It’s really been a continuous unfolding of the story,” Seth Bryant, a descendant of a massacre survivor, told NBC News. Bryant’s great-grandfather A.J. Smitherman was the owner and publisher of The Tulsa Star, an influential Black newspaper. Smitherman would become one of the hundreds of survivors who fled the city after the massacre, eventually settling fin Buffalo, New York.
Like many Tulsa descendants, Bryant did not fully realize the extent of the horror in his family until adulthood.
“There's a lot of information that I'm learning about my great-grandfather, about my family, and it really is mind blowing,” he said.
Bryant noted The Tulsa Star was viewed with suspicion for years before the massacre because of its coverage of politics and Black rights.
“He was among the community leaders that were viewed as being instigators of the whole thing,” Bryant said.
Smitherman would immortalize the horrors of the massacre in his writing.
“In one of his poems, he describes a really harrowing image of my great-grandmother and my grandmother as an infant being in a home in the Greenwood section of Tulsa and how they hid in the basement when the mobs finally made it to that area,” Bryant said. “They were in the basement and smelled the fire and they were able to escape.”
Despite the harrowing experiences the family went through as they rebuilt their lives in a completely new city after the massacre, many of Bryant’s older family members never talked about what happened publicly.
Although both of his great-grandparents had died before he was born, “I had aunts and uncles who lived through that experience,” Bryant, who is 50 and an attorney, said. “But I was a child. So they didn't talk about those things in very graphic ways at all. It wasn't until I was older that, you know, they started to talk about it a little bit, but they never dwelled on it.”
Anneliese M. Bruner also did not learn that her grandmother and great-grandmother had survived the massacre until she was in her 30s. One Christmas while visiting her father, “My dad took me aside and closed his door and said, ‘I have something I want to give to you,’” Bruner told NBC News.
He handed her a copy of “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” a firsthand account of the 1921 massacre by Bruner’s great-grandmother Mary E. Jones Parrish that she had initially self-published in the months afterward. Her father asked, “Do you think that there's anything that you could do with this?”
That moment served as both the first time Bruner had heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre and that her family had survived it.
“I obviously read it through in one sitting and was just blown away by the whole thing,” she said. “I had taken Black history and U.S. history in high school and college and nothing was ever mentioned in any of those settings.”
In May, Bruner and Trinity University Press reissued the book under the title “The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.” The book recalls what it was like in the moments immediately before the mob ransacked the Parrish family home in Greenwood and then takes readers through how Parrish and her young child, Bruner’s grandmother Florence Mary Parrish Bruner, escaped the violence and what they witnessed as their neighborhood burned.
Parrish’s recollections include the moment that Florence, who was a toddler in 1921, alerted her mother to the violent crowds outside.
“As a small child, I can only imagine how earth-shattering it was to look out, see that and then be snatched up by your mother and then run out basically on foot,” Bruner said of her grandmother.
Bruner said she understands why the survivors of the massacre were hesitant to talk about what they witnessed.
“I have a great compassion for why people might not have spoken about this,” she said. “There is certainly an internalized feeling within the community that you don't talk about these kinds of things.”
Recent years have seen an increased push to uncover the full story of the massacre. In 2015, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission was created to appropriately memorialize the 100th anniversary of the event. A major part of the work early on was building relationships and trust with community members and organizations that work with Tulsa’s Black community and reaching out to the descendants of survivors of the massacre.
“One of the very first key things was tackling the lack of curriculum support and the fact that most people were not taught about the massacre,” Phil Armstrong, the commission's project director, told NBC News.
But in addition to educating the public and commemorating the victims of the massacre, both Bryant and Bruner say there needs to be more acknowledgement of how the losses that occurred in Greenwood still impact families with roots in Tulsa today. In the new afterward to her great-grandmother’s book, Bruner recounts a conversation with a friend who also realized recently that he was a descendant of a Tulsa massacre survivor.
“He said when he read my article he burst into tears because his great-grandparents left Tulsa in the immediate aftermath of the massacre and went to Detroit and struggled,” she said.
“Today when there are refugees from scenes of war, there are government and international relief organizations to help them get resettled,” she added. “There was no such thing back then, certainly not for Black people who were internally displaced persons who were fleeing basically persecution.”
For Bryant, a conversation about reconciliation has to include a discussion about what is owed to the families that lost everything when Greenwood was destroyed.
“I haven't seen it play out in a way where there's anything other than a remembrance of an obvious atrocity,” Bryant said of the current memorials. “Now if you couple recognition with recompense, then let’s talk about it.”