In Jezebel’s series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode, we spoke with Anneliese M. Bruner, writer, editor, and great-granddaughter of journalist Mary E. Jones Parrish, the author of The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which has recently been republished. Originally titled Events of the Tulsa Race Disaster, Parrish’s book is a collection of harrowing testimonies gathered immediately after the Tulsa race massacre from its survivors—including Parrish herself.
Anneliese M. Bruner was 34 years old when she first learned of the 1921 race massacre that occurred in the Tulsa, Oklahoma neighborhood of Greenwood, then home to a wealthy, thriving Black community. Her father handed her one of the few original copies left of Events of the Tulsa Race Disaster, written by journalist Mary E. Jones Parrish—her great-grandmother. “I was a grown woman at that time with my own family, and that was the very first I had ever heard of it,” she told Jezebel about the book, which has recently been brought back into print. Drawing from conversations she’s had since with descendants of Holocaust survivors, Bruner believes the lack of discussion surrounding the events to be tied to its trauma. “This is not uncommon for survivors of these kinds of pogroms, if you will, not to say anything, and for their children and grandchildren to be the ones to really bring these stories forward. They’re either too shell-shocked or they don’t want to talk about it because they feel some sense of blame, I guess because they have survived and others have not.”
But while there were emotional and psychological reasons for not speaking of the Tulsa race massacre in the open, Bruner also attributes its longtime absence from popular knowledge to a deliberate, concerted effort to suppress its existence. “People who tried over the subsequent decades to find out about it, to dig up stories, they were discouraged. Some were threatened. Any coverage of the story was ripped from the paper before it was converted into microfilm, and lost forever.”
The massacre in Tulsa—rumored to have been caused by an accusation against a young, Black shoeshine worker of attacking a young, white woman—took place over the course of two days as Greenwood was torched, burned, and bombed, its Black citizens hunted. “Thousands of people were made homeless. They lost everything.” Following her own escape from the massacre, Bruner’s great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth Jones Parrish wrote of her experience and gathered the stories of others in The Nation Must Awake. “She collected the histories as a way to deal with her own grief,” Bruner explained. “She said that listening to the troubles of others aroused compassion in her own heart, and that helped her to deal with her own difficulties.”
Although the exact death toll of the massacre is unknown, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 confirmed 26 Black men, 13 white men, and over 100 estimated victims, and discovered a potential location of a mass grave. In 2001, the Tulsa Reparations Coalition was formed to seek restitution for the damages suffered by Greenwood’s Black community, and in May of 2021 three survivors testified in Congress to seek reparations. Bruner hopes readers will take away the modern-day relevance of her great-grandmother’s work: “The issues have not been resolved. This should have been laid to rest a long time ago. But since it has not, it is an important tool in the reckoning because it tells the truth.”