Editor’s note: The following may include first-person accounts of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre contain graphic depictions and antiquated racial terminology. We have chosen not to edit these survivor accounts to leave their stories unencumbered by interpretation or exclusion.
“Mother, I see men with guns.”
Mary Parrish was reading when her daughter alerted her to the violence coming to their doorstep. The daughter, Florence Mary, 6, called the young journalist and teacher to the window. Like many Black Tulsans in Greenwood, they fled as bullets flew and houses were set afire that night of May 31, 1921.
Built by the sons of slaves, Greenwood in the early 20th century grew into America’s most prosperous Black community, only to be destroyed in 18 hours of murder and destruction by a white mob.
A century after that massacre, the nation’s attention is on Greenwood, and while awareness is heightened, thanks to television shows and documentaries, the story of the community’s rebuilding and repeated loss of generational wealth are often left out of the storytelling.
No clear analysis exists as to the extent of the losses suffered by Greenwood residents and their descendants, though some recent studies put the figure at $200 million. But what would the total loss be if it also calculated lost opportunities and a second destruction that took place with highway construction and urban renewal 50 years after the massacre?
Although she was only able to publish two dozen copies of her book on the massacre, Parrish wrote one of the earliest first-person accounts of the massacre. She had been a teacher at the local YWCA and had customers who paid for her typing and secretarial work. She reported losses from the massacre totaling $1,250 — more than $28,000 in today’s value.
Black Wall Street destruction led to lost opportunities, lost peace of mind
For the Parrish family, the legacy of the massacre goes beyond the loss of everything Mary Parrish owned. The explosion of violence that long-ago weekend continues to haunt three generations later as Anneliese Bruner, Parrish’s great-granddaughter, confronts a legacy of terror triggered by the sight of a violent white mob.
“As January 6th rolled around, I had a generational flashback to Tulsa, and I was terrified,” Bruner said, referring to the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol earlier this year. “I was mortified.”
It is in the aftermath of that episode that Bruner is realizing her longtime dream of seeing her great-grandmother’s book, “The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921,” finally published to a wide audience.
Bruner said the losses continued after the attack a century ago. Victims who lost property deeds and insurance papers sometimes lost their properties, while insurance was denied under the excuse that the attack was a riot, a cause exempted under policies at the time.
“She was financially independent,” Bruner said. “And after the massacre happened, people were required to have a white person vouch for their employment for them to get a pass to work. It was just like a slave pass before the Civil War.”
Parrish hadn’t worked for a white employer, but she finally found a business acquaintance who vouched for her to get a pass.
Florence Mary grew up, earned a four-year teacher’s degree at Langston University, married a fellow college graduate and teacher, and the pair moved to San Francisco in 1951 where they hoped for a shot at a better life.
“She took the teacher’s exam, performed very well, but she was told she was not eligible to be a teacher,” Bruner said.
It’s at this point in the interview with The Oklahoman that Bruner pauses. “Do you know why?” she asks.
The frustration in Bruner’s tone is still raw with emotion. Instead of being hired as a teacher by the San Francisco Independent School District, the powers at the time instead chose to hire Bruner’s grandmother as a janitor.
“If we’re talking strictly about money, that in itself is hard to measure,” Bruner said. “But people don’t just lose money and property. They lose a part of themselves. You’re talking about a 6-year-old aware of their world, my grandmother, a child, who warned her mother there were men out front with guns.”
Greenwood destroyed again, decades after Tulsa Race Massacre
The psychological pain of the massacre may never go away. And so far, the assailants, the city of Tulsa and the insurance companies all have avoided compensating the victims and their heirs for what was taken from them.
A team of researchers, Chris Messer, Thomas Shriver and Alison Adams, presented a study on the aftermath and loss in the October 2018 edition of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology and summarized the economic devastation in Greenwood was “essentially total.”
They wrote Black residents, distrustful of white-owned banks, often hid their cash in their homes, further complicating an accurate report of true losses beyond their $200 million estimate.
Carlos Moreno, author of “The Victory at Greenwood,” believes a true compensation for Greenwood survivors and their descendants should also include the losses from the destruction that followed in the 1960s and 1970s, when all but a block was again destroyed for construction of highways and then with clearance by the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority.
“Let’s look at the market value of all those homes and businesses and find out how much the city paid through eminent domain,” Moreno said. “When we talk about reparations, let’s add that number.”
Moreno has a hunch on how much might have been due to survivor Mabel Little, who was penniless when at age 17 she sought out a future in Greenwood. She met her future husband, Pressley Little, on her first day in Greenwood at a cafe.
Mabel Little got a job at the Brady Hotel, which was built by Tulsa founding father and Ku Klux Klan member Tate Brady.
She and Pressley Little married in 1914, and they soon sought to emulate the entrepreneurial success stories happening around them. Mabel Little opened a beauty shop, and Pressley Little opened a cafe next door. They also invested in some rental properties.
“Mabel Little lost her home and business in 1921 and then lost her home and business again during urban renewal,” Moreno said. “The city paid her $16,000.”
Moreno estimates that if Little had not lost everything in 1921 and again in 1971, her estate could have been worth about $1.3 million in present value, far more than what she had left when she died in 2001.
“She was living in a little apartment,” Moreno said. “She wasn’t living in poverty, but she wasn’t rich by any stretch of the imagination. She was denied that generational wealth twice. And there were many families in Greenwood who shared that same story.”
John Rogers Jr., CEO of Ariel Investments, the first Black-owned asset management firm founded in 1983, warned in congressional testimony last July the wealth gap is only getting worse. He cited research by Dean Kerwin Charles, at the Yale School of Management, that found that while the gap did shrink between 1940 and 1970, it is now wider than in 1950.
“As the proud great-grandson of J.B. Stradford, a pioneering entrepreneur who owned the Stradford Hotel in Tulsa, this is personal,” Rogers said. “His hotel was torched during the 1921 Tulsa race riots and the opportunity to pass down wealth through generations like many other white families went up in smoke. Imagine what the Stradford Hotel, or the Greenwood section of Tulsa known as ‘Black Wall Street,’ would be like today.”
Sixty years passed before Rogers founded Ariel Investments — long after Stradford died having been unable to re-create the business empire he had built in Tulsa.
“Think about the billions of dollars in unrealized Black wealth wiped out by angry mobs more than a century ago in Wilmington, North Carolina, or Memphis, Tennessee, the site of the Peoples Grocery,” Rogers said. “Add the weight of Jim Crow, red-lining and racism, and the root cause of economic inequality is clear.”
Greenwood today, Greenwood tomorrow
Nine buildings are all that remain of the Greenwood that was rebuilt in the four years immediately after the massacre. They include the three-story wedge-shaped flatiron building at 100 N Greenwood, named after John and Loula Williams.
The block represents just a fraction of what is still referred to as Black Wall Street. Preservation architect Catherine Montgomery recently submitted a nomination of the district for addition to the National Register of Historic Places that details how this one block was the heart of Greenwood.
The block was home to the Gurleys’ grocery, B.C. Franklin’s law office and the Williamses’ Dreamland Theatre. The nomination notes most of the buildings were occupied until 1967, but by 1980 the only remaining tenant was the Black-owned newspaper, the Oklahoma Eagle.
Based on the history of other cities with Black neighborhoods facing similar challenges, what remained of Greenwood might have disappeared forever. A grant from the federal Economic Development Agency allowed the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce to join with the city in restoring the surviving storefronts and renovating the buildings to be fit for occupancy again.
The chamber owns the buildings and rents them to an assortment of shops, restaurants and offices. Freeman Culver III, president of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, said 28 of the 38 businesses are owned by African Americans.
The damage done by Interstate 244 continues; on the north side of the bridge is the sprawling Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus that includes expansive undeveloped property.
“We can’t even stretch the commercial district past that bridge,” Culver said. “OSU is a great partner, they work great with us, but they own all the land. I’m glad they are there. But if that highway wasn’t put there, it would be a larger commercial district.”
Greenwood Avenue is bustling again, but whether that will continue, and what that could portend, is up for debate. Thanks to HBO shows about the destruction of the area and other national spotlights on Greenwood, tourists like James Clark are traveling from as far away as Florida to see it for himself.
He found what he believes is an authentic part of old Greenwood at Wanda J’s Next Generation Restaurant, which is run by Ty Walker with the assistance of his six daughters, his wife, four cousins, an uncle and aunt.
New contemporary apartments, however, overshadow the block, and more development is coming to the area.
Kristi Williams, who provides tours of the district, worries the area is being gentrified. Her great-aunt, Jamie Edwards, was in Dreamland Theatre when the massacre broke out, and in Williams’ view, Greenwood is still a crime scene.
“It’s sacred land,” Williams said. “You see that. As a person who gives tours, there are people coming from all over. And you have some people wanting to make it like Disneyland. You can’t do that.”
Moreno shares that concern. He sees positives in a younger generation of Black Tulsans starting up businesses on the street, and there is even talk of creating a new Dreamland Theatre.
“It’s all about land,” Moreno said. “It’s always been about land. Tate Brady wanted to take their land. Urban renewal succeeded in stealing that land. And through gentrification, these new projects, shiny as they may be, it’s still about who owns this land. Will it be rich, white developers again or the people living and working in Greenwood?”
Ty Walker doesn’t think much will change in the long run.
“There is really not anything left,” Walker said. “We have three restaurants … we don’t have a movie theater or nightclub. So, they’ll look at some of the old businesses and listen to people telling history. But once Memorial Day weekend is over, guess what will happen? It will go back to normal.”
Staff writer Steve Lackmeyer is a 30-year reporter, columnist and author who covers downtown Oklahoma City and related urban development for The Oklahoman. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Black Wall Street wealth lost in Tulsa massacre spans generations, experts say