It was eerily fitting that the weekend before a mob of President Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, I sat down to reread the book that my great-grandmother, Mary Jones Parrish, wrote almost 100 years ago. In it, she recounted and reported on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. From May 31 to June 1 of that year, violent mobs of White marauders completely destroyed the Greenwood section of Tulsa, transforming a prosperous African American community into a smoldering pile of rubble.
The book was passed down to me by my late father, whose mother, Florence Parrish Bruner, was a child when it was written. She herself survived the massacre, which razed 35 square blocks of what was known as the city’s “Black Wall Street” and killed as many as 300 Black Tulsans. “I was informed that the dead were so quickly disposed of on that night and day until it was impossible to ever get an exact record of the dead and wounded,” according to the book, “Events of the Tulsa Disaster.” (The book is being rereleased in May from Trinity University Press under the new title “The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.”)
Last Wednesday’s breach of the Capitol by a mob that included white nationalists could easily be described with the same words and framing used by witnesses and commentators of Mary’s day. And while the mob’s actions last week did not cost me my life, livelihood or human dignity, they did cost me my sense of security. I felt that the wheels of civilized behavior were coming off the wagon — that the same appetite for terror that had been unleashed in Tulsa was afoot in D.C. The parallels were too stark to overlook.
When the mob arrived at the Capitol around noon on Wednesday, I was watching on Twitter at home, about five miles away from the chaos in downtown Washington, D.C. My son, 32, and daughter, 39, grew up here and were also at home; we are weathering isolation together. They’re accustomed to protests, but this was different.
That day, I was nervous but hopeful. It appeared that Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff had been elected to the U.S. Senate in Georgia’s runoff election, offering a chance that the new president would have congressional cooperation instead of obstruction. I thought maybe things were finally going to change after four years of overt, unrelenting racism.
In reality, the cause for my optimism was probably another source of consternation for people deluded into believing that the election had actually been stolen from President Trump, delusion fostered and stoked by Trump’s bombastic and false assertions of fraud.
The faces of supporters at his rallies were often contorted with rage, and as he egged them on with lies and conspiracy theories, my intuition told me the potential for violence was never far away. When Trump had traveled to Tulsa in June 2020 for a campaign rally, I was terrified that tempers might flare, that people might be killed. The specter of the 1921 massacre flooded my mind. I was relieved when TikTok teenagers turned that rally into a bust.
But then came the rumblings of another rally: one meant to disrupt the official certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s November election. The pro-Trump crowds that swarmed the Capitol that day were primed for violence, much like the Tulsa mob that Mary, my great-grandmother, described. As I watched clips of mostly White rioters scaling the building and breaking windows in real-time, her words were reanimated for me:
“Just as this horde of evil men swept down on the Colored section of Tulsa, reducing the accumulation of years of toil and sacrifice to piles of brick, ashes, and twisted iron, if something is not done to bring about justice and to punish them, thereby checking that spirit, just so will they, some future day, sweep down on the homes and business places of their own race. This spirit of destruction, like that of mob violence when it is once kindled, has no measure or bounds, neither has it any respect of place, person, or color.”
I was struck by the exactitude of her vision. For the first time, the trauma of the unique brand of American racism that passes down to and through our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — the trauma of generations of racially motivated unrest — truly became real for me, and for my children, and for the whole country. It was a sorrowful first.
But as my son says about many predictions, “It didn’t take an oracle.” It took observation, factual information and keen foresight. At the time of her writing, Mary had only to look around herself, read in newspapers what was happening throughout the country and extrapolate according to reason.
In 1921, nothing less than savagery was on display when a mob of an estimated 500 White men and boys as young as 10 assembled near Tulsa’s jail to remove and lynch Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black man, who had been accused of assaulting a White girl, Sarah Page, in an elevator. Reports of the incident exaggerated the severity of the offense, and Black Tulsans responded to the White lynch mob by gathering to keep him safe. A wayward shot was fired, and violence was sparked.
The White boys and men roamed through Greenwood looting and setting fire to Black homes and businesses. Machine guns were mounted on Standpipe Hill, a piece of land that jutted into the African American district, and Black people were mowed down as they fled the fires and roving gangs. Tulsa’s Black residents were rounded up at gunpoint and taken to the fairgrounds, and those who were able to flee relied on the Red Cross and good Samaritans to feed and clothe them. Numerous accounts recall scores of wounded and dead. Some say mothers were forced to give birth to their babies on the street.
One of the event’s harshest realizations came when White marauders rejoiced at the misfortune they caused — not unlike the brazen, gleeful scenes of this year’s mob inside the Capitol. In 1921, they laughed and celebrated as their victims rode on the backs of trucks or were marched to detention with their hands up. Formerly independent Black folks had to have a White person vouch for them to receive an identity card or a police pass to move through the town, and cart loads of looted goods were later seen in White homes.
My great-grandmother operated a secretarial school and taught typewriting and shorthand classes at Tulsa’s local YMCA. She lost her home and business in the rioting, but stayed in Tulsa because she was contracted by a local pastor and community leader to report on the event and its aftermath. Family members in nearby towns — who had initially received reports that she and her daughter had died in a fire — encouraged her to join them at their homes. But she was proud of her independence and wanted to “see affairs through.”
Her daughter Florence, my paternal grandmother, was with her during the riot and the immediate aftermath. The devastation has been described as resembling a war zone, and children who live through such catastrophe often develop anxiety and depression, which can last a lifetime. Despite all this, Florence went on to attend Langston College and became a teacher; she lived most of her adult life in California, where I was born.
But there is an inner life that doesn’t always lend itself to the feel-good stories we often tell ourselves about “strong Black women” and their success in overcoming hardship. My grandmother self-medicated with alcohol, and I can remember her coming for a visit to my dad’s house and immediately asking for gin. My father used to laugh when he would tell us that he liked beer so much because his mother drank beer when she was pregnant with him.
I don’t believe my dad really understood the trauma and stress his mother endured, nor the cross-generational implications for him and, later, for me. I can only imagine how heartbroken his mother was from a lifetime of compounded misfortune, starting from the time she was a child fleeing her home with her mother amid gunfire, burning buildings and cruel White faces. My dad, too, was heartbroken at “losing” his mother, who eventually lost custody of him; he developed alcoholism as well. It is easy to see how collective, compounding trauma permeates families and transmits through the generations.
One hundred years on from Tulsa, many of the same forces are tearing at our society — cynical politics, racial animus, police brutality, greed. That’s why Black people came out in overwhelming numbers to put a halt to Trump’s presidency. We knew instinctively that he would be bad for the country, because he was always going to be bad for us. We have learned to be wary of White anger and White fear because we will bear the cost, but what starts with us doesn’t necessarily stay with us. Our whole society is put at risk by ignoring racism’s anti-democratic consequences.
I’m shaken that my son — who stayed up all night on Wednesday, watching for signs of anything unusual near our house — has learned what it feels like to fear the very institutions that should protect us, especially in light of the tenuous official response to last week’s dangerous mob. And now it’s not only Black Americans who feel the fear — people across the political spectrum, White people and other people of color, do, too.
As my great-grandmother pointed out, thirst for destruction is hard to squelch. It builds upon itself until it is almost impossible to stop. As talk of a potential “second Civil War” has been bandied about, it’s hard to imagine how the momentum toward conflict could be broken without effective intervention from our leaders. That has to start with a universal acknowledgment and naming of white nationalism for the profound threat that it is.
We are not where we were 100 years ago, however. While tensions remain high, there is reason to hope: People across the country are condemning the attempted Capitol insurrection. As the country’s leadership changes and is reshaped, D.C. will need to be ground zero for a renewed commitment to service and community. My children feel inspired and empowered to be part of the work to make ours a more just society, and I know their generation can do better than what has come before.
When my father gave me the book many years ago, my grandmother, Florence, had already died. I never had the chance to ask her about what she saw and remembered from the Tulsa disaster. I’m glad to have great-grandmother Mary’s perspective in her own words from her own hand: “The rich man of power and the fat politician who have maneuvered to get into office, and even our Congress, may sit idly by with folded hands and say, ‘What can we do?’ Let me warn you that the time is fast approaching when you will want to do something and it will be too late.”
And it will be too late for some. But those who come after are not bound by an odious past.