Tulsa finally confronts the day a white mob destroyed a Black community

In 1921 rioters killed as many as 300 people, devastating a prosperous area for generations. Now the city is trying to reckon with the disgrace.

Robert Turner prays near the site of a newly discovered mass grave in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, the first found from the 1921 attack by white rioters on Greenwood, a Black neighborhood. Turner is pastor at Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was heavily damaged in the rampage.

On June 1, 1921, as a white mob descended on Greenwood, the all-Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mary E. Jones Parrish grabbed her young daughter’s hand and ran for her life. Dodging machine-gun fire, they sprinted down Greenwood Avenue, a street so prosperous it would later be remembered as Black Wall Street. Above them, the sky buzzed with several civilian airplanes dropping makeshift turpentine bombs. Thousands of Black people fled while the mob advanced—looting; torching houses, churches, and other buildings; and shooting Black people in cold blood. “Get out of the street with that child, or you both will be killed!” someone yelled. But Parrish saw nowhere to hide. She felt it would be “suicide” to remain in her apartment building, “for it would surely be destroyed and death in the street was preferred, for we expected to be shot down at any moment,” she recalled in Events of the Tulsa Disaster, her 1922 book, which includes rare witness accounts of what has become known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Black people rushed out of burning buildings, Parrish wrote, “some with babes in their arms and leading crying and excited children by the hand; others, old and feeble, all fleeing for safety.”

Parrish hurried toward Standpipe Hill, the highest ground in Greenwood. But she found no safety. As she looked below, she saw an exodus of Black Tulsans and smoke rising from what had been a bustling commercial district. Someone in a truck called out to her. She and her daughter scrambled aboard, escaping from the death and destruction.

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