Black Feminist in Public: On the Centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Anneliese Bruner Treasures Her Great-Grandmother’s Words

Black Feminist in Public: On the Centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Anneliese Bruner Treasures Her Great-Grandmother’s Words
Colorized image from the Tulsa Race Riot, estimated to be around 8 a.m.; photographer unknown. (Department of Special Collections and University Archives / The University of Tulsa)

Just ahead of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre centennial (May 31–June 1), an eyewitness account of the tragedy by Tulsa resident, Mary E. Jones Parrish (1892–1972), has been reissued by Trinity University Press as The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Ms. magazine’s Janell Hobson had an opportunity to interview Parrish’s great-granddaughter, writer and editor Anneliese M. Bruner, who has contributed to this latest edition.

In this conversation, we discuss Black women’s professional and personal histories, the impact of storytelling, and why we must never forget the racial injustices of the past.


Janell Hobson: I see that you have an afterword in this reprint of Mary E. Jones Parrish’s eyewitness account.

Anneliese Bruner: Yes, and this is the first time that it will be reissued to a much broader audience. That’s what has me super excited—in addition to obviously my own involvement in this particular iteration of my great-grandmother’s book. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Hobson: What do you know about your great-grandmother’s life?

Bruner: I don’t know much. I know she married into the Parrish family, and she separated from them at some point early in my grandmother Florence’s life. Much of the information that I’ve received about her has not been through direct family channels but from outside sources.

She was born in Mississippi in the late 1800s. I don’t know a lot about why her family ended up in Oklahoma, but she had returned South from Rochester, New York, where she had been living. She also had brothers in the area surrounding Tulsa; we know this from her account itself, where she says that she came to Tulsa with all of these high expectations, having heard of how Tulsa was a center of commerce and sophisticated Black culture. My great-grandmother was an industrious and ambitious person. She was an independent woman.

Hobson: I believe Mary E. Jones Parrish is operating in the same vein as someone like Ida B. Wells, who did profound anti-lynching journalism work, but Parrish is not as well known. Why is that?

Bruner: We have a system that amplifies certain voices while other voices are not heard. I think Mary Parrish’s book has been an important platform over the years to capture the voices of the Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, but probably because of her gender, she doesn’t get the same attention. But there is so much to learn from her life.

She worked and taught at the YWCA in Greenwood. She also had her own independent business school where she taught what I call the secretarial sciences. Brilliant women were working in the secretarial field, because those were the jobs, office jobs, that were available to them. There wasn’t a system that supported women in other professions. So, you see how industrious and brilliant this woman was who trained my grandmother, and she used what is now a dying art—the shorthand—to gather the accounts from all the survivors and other witnesses of the massacre. I’m sure that she captured those words practically verbatim because she was a master of shorthand, and I’m certain she transcribed these on her own typewriter before she was able to raise funds, probably from the sale of those interesting ads we see at the end of the book, to help her to self-publish those few volumes that she then brought to the public. This was a woman of great industry. That’s what her community prided: self-sufficiency and self-determination.


“She used what is now a dying art—the shorthand—to gather the accounts from all the survivors and other witnesses of the massacre. I’m sure that she captured those words practically verbatim.”


Hobson: Is this self-sufficiency also reflected in her Black community in Greenwood as a whole? There is the nickname of “Black Wall Street” attributed to this community.

Bruner: The myth of Black Wall Street is obviously layered. There were shortcomings there. Parrish talks in the book about the lack of public utilities, because it was controlled by other people in downtown Tulsa, for example, and deals had to be made. Lights hadn’t been run out to certain areas, and public hygiene was a problem, so it’s a complex situation.

Hobson: Yes, and Parrish captures that complexity in the story she tells. I am struck by what you describe as her typewriting and education that enables her to leave behind this wonderfully rich historical record, and that we recognize how these women were trained in certain secretarial skills—whether as secretaries or “human computers” like the Hidden Figures women—or in writing and setting the record straight, like an Ida B. Wells. So, I like to think of Parrish as existing within this powerful legacy of Black women using these tools to make themselves and their communities legible.

Bruner: Yes, and she was doing all this when she was apparently no longer with her husband. She was managing her own career at the same time that she was raising a daughter on her own. I’m thinking about career in terms of what you’re contributing to the society in which you find yourself.

How much more could she have done if she had, for example, a supportive husband, or if she or any other woman had systemic support to give their full gifts to the world? The world is suffering because too many people—women, Black—are pushed to the sidelines.


How much more could she have done if she had, for example, a supportive husband, or if she or any other woman had systemic support to give their full gifts to the world? The world is suffering because too many people—women, Black—are pushed to the sidelines.


Hobson: They’re pushed to the sidelines, just like their histories are sidelined. I think of Mary Jones Parrish as belonging to an amazing generation of African Americans who were basically one generation removed from slavery. And yet, they rose up from slavery so quickly! They were able to, in a relatively short period of time, amass wealth and education, run for political office, and they were able to build functioning and prosperous towns like Greenwood.

That brings up the question: How far could we as Black people have gotten ahead were it not for white supremacy?

Bruner: I don’t call it white supremacy. I have another word: It’s called white primacy. That dispels the notion that there’s anything supreme about this; it’s based on a primitive drive to be first. Like a child. Except it’s not childlike because it is actually dangerous in the hands of grown people who have power in organized societies.

But you make such an excellent point. Black citizens of this country contributed to the life of the nation, and we were clearly willing, able and eager to have full participation. But just like with affirmative action, their progress was working too well. So well in fact that a certain percentage of the population that is driven by a vulgar and barbaric quest for white primacy were triggered. And every time Black folks get to a certain point those people go crazy.

What we saw on January 6 was the culmination of this latest cycle. There is no way around the truth of what happened in this country over the past four years, culminating in an attempted overthrow of the legitimate transfer of power, so this is an opportune moment to read my great-grandmother’s book and reinvigorate this conversation. Tulsa is a crucible in this discussion, and I am so glad that this time has come and that this book is now being republished and we can talk about it.


What we saw on January 6 was the culmination of this latest cycle … so this is an opportune moment to read my great-grandmother’s book and reinvigorate this conversation. Tulsa is a crucible in this discussion.”


Hobson: We definitely need to discuss this history in the context of our contemporary concerns. However, I’ve seen conversations on social media where there is amazement that a Greenwood neighborhood even existed in history.

With the history of the destruction of this Tulsa community, we realize we as Black people were not just surviving but thriving. But there is also this extreme force of “white primacy,” as you call it, that has stymied their progress. What do you think we should learn from this particular history?

Bruner: What we can learn from this is to keep our own stories alive. As I said, I did not hear this passed down through my own family, and that is a great failing and a great tragedy. So, we need to talk to our folks. Young people need to understand what the older people have been through. Older people need to pass these stories onto the younger folk because our history is precious.

Hobson: As a historical record, Mary Jones Parris’s book is really rich, and I especially like the way she itemized a list of all the lost property from the Tulsa massacre, so if ever there was a case for reparations, this is it. Do you believe her book can lead to those kinds of resolutions?

Bruner: I certainly would hope so, because I am in full support of reparations; obviously not only from the town’s situation, but from the period of Black enslavement in this country, and I believe that this is a first step. There is irrefutable evidence of monetary amounts that were lost and, of course, those are the tangible losses, but there are so many other layers of acute and chronic trauma that have accrued within the African American community. There has to be relief for people, and that has to be tangible in terms of resources.

Hobson: I remember reading an interview with HBO showrunner Damon Lindelof, who did the Watchmen series in which he wrote the history of the Tulsa massacre into the show after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. Did you see the series, or Lovecraft Country, another HBO series by showrunner Misha Green, which also dramatized the tragedy?

Bruner: I am familiar with them only through popular culture; however, I have not watched these programs. But I do celebrate the fact that people are wanting to tell these kinds of stories and, through a creative process, bring awareness of this very important and crucial history. What is so significant about the Tulsa crucible is that for the first time we actually had the deployment of military grade equipment and methodologies to enact a pogrom on American soil. This is one of the elements of this particular event that is so worthy of conversation and analysis. So yes, I am glad that people are becoming aware of it so that now we can talk about it with a richness that had not been previously possible.

Black Feminist in Public: On the Centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Anneliese Bruner Treasures Her Great-Grandmother’s Words
HBO’s Watchmen recreated the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in its first episode. (Mark Hill / HBO)

Hobson: I know! The Tulsa race massacre marks the first incident in this country in which bombs were dropped from planes on a neighborhood! I did see both shows, and they both actually highlighted these particular incidents, and I definitely observed how audiences reacted on social media with genuine shock that this happened. I also noticed that there were some Black audiences who complained about films and TV shows recreating Black traumatic experiences and painful Black histories for entertainment. And yet, how do you tell a story like the Tulsa massacre and not engage with its painful history? Should there be pushback against seeing these kinds of stories in our entertainment?

Bruner:  We have all kinds of examples of how other communities that have suffered from organized violence tell these stories. I’m speaking about the Jewish community during the Holocaust, of course, and how those stories have been formulated for the public. Yes, it is painful, but human history is ugly, and one of the reasons why the Holocaust is something that we are much more aware of is because we have been forced to look at those ugly horrible images.

We must deal with these kinds of stories as human beings, and silencing is never going to take the place of true engagement around why people do these horrible things to one another. Now, I understand why some people object to more graphic depictions shared on social media, like the murder of police brutality victim George Floyd. I can see how people interpret the widespread and unfettered sharing of those kinds of images as traumatic. That’s a different entity. But there is some level of responsibility that creative people have to be as truthful and as accurate as possible to the histories they tell. Because we are in a media-consuming society, this is the way that messages get out to people, and I have nothing against creative people using true historical events responsibly in their entertainment.


“Yes, it is painful, but human history is ugly. … There is some level of responsibility that creative people have to be as truthful and as accurate as possible to the histories they tell.”


Hobson: What are you doing to mark the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre?

Bruner: I will be in Tulsa. I’ve never set foot in the place, but I will return triumphant, and I say that because I feel that my ancestor’s spirit will be there to welcome me.

Up next:


 If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

About

Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of the forthcoming When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination.