The Victory of Greenwood: Black Media Reporting of the Massacre

Mary E. Jones Parrish

Most of what we know today about the 1921 Race Massacre comes from white newspapers (the Tulsa Tribune and the Tulsa World) and white journalists and historians such as Scott Ellsworth, Tim Madigan, James S. Hirsch, and others. While these authors have certainly helped bring attention about the Massacre to a national audience, what has been widely ignored are Black writers’ voices, especially those who were writing about the attack on Greenwood in the weeks, months, and years following the events. A few short years ago, searching through microfilm archives of Black newspapers, court case documents, maps at land offices, photographs in museum collections, and archived video and audiotapes of 1st-person narratives was painstaking work. Today, many of these primary sources have been digitally archived and are available online. With these new tools and newly discovered sources, we can gain a fresh perspective and a greater understanding of the causes of the Massacre. We can also gain an appreciation of how Black writers expressed not just the facts of these events but their experiences and reflections. After World War I, mainstream journalism in the United States was evolving away from sensational or “yellow journalism” to a form that was more standardized and objective — a tradition that wouldn’t be challenged until the “New Journalism” movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But in the Black community, 1st-person narratives and even passionate, emotional writing and poetry were just as important to reporting the day’s news as cold hard facts.

Dr. George Washington Buckner
Like several of his professional contemporaries, Dr. George Washington Buckner was a man of many talents and pursued many different careers — often at the same time. Buckner was born into slavery in 1855 in Kentucky and was freed at the age of ten. By the age of 21, he was learning to be a teacher, first near Greensburg and later at Indiana State Normal School in Terre Haute. After a brief teaching career, he graduated from medical school and opened a doctor’s office in Evansville, Indiana. He served as the ambassador to Liberia from 1913 to 1915. While he practiced medicine, he was also principal of the Independence School in Evansville and wrote a regular column in the Evansville Courier.

On June 24, 1921, Buckner wrote an analysis of the Massacre in Tulsa for the St. Louis Argus newspaper in Missouri. The headline read “Riot Victims are Neglected” with sub-headlines including, “Buckner Blames City Government And White Hoodlums For Trouble. Says There Is Sufficient Evidence That Riot Was Planned. Looters Assembled After Bell Rings. Huge Trucks Cart Off Negroes’ Possessions. Airplanes Dropped Turpentine Balls.” He writes in the article that he spent nine days in Tulsa investigating the Massacre. Two accusations in his coverage stand out. Buckner wrote that “The Negro boy who stumbled upon the white elevator girl in the Drexel Building simply served to bring on the clash which had been gathering momentum during the past two years.” and that “There has been sufficient evidence to indicate that it was, and it is a known fact that the whites carefully organized their plans before they made the attack.” He pointed out that the 5:00 a.m. siren seemed to change the nature of the attack, from chaos to an organized operation — groups moving street by street, house by house, evacuating the neighborhood, and sending residents to holding areas, including Convention Hall. Buckner wrote that only after the residents were evacuated and the houses were looted did the burning of the district begin in earnest. “One fellow would yell, ‘strik’er off boys!’ Airplanes [hovered] near the Negro section and dropped turpentine balls upon buildings. So systematically did the mobbing squad [move] that by 11 o’clock the whole Negro section had been razed to the ground …”

Buckner’s accusations that the Massacre had been planned were verified in an article published by the Associated Negro Press and appeared in several papers, including the Phoenix Tribune and the Dallas Express on October 22, 1921. The article described that Topeka, Kansas, attorney Elisha Scott had compiled a 21-page report which included the confessions of Tulsa police officer Van B. Hurley and police Captain George G. Blaine. The report described that “several prominent city officials … met in a downtown office and carefully planned the attack on the segregated district by use of airplanes.”

Mary E. Jones Parrish
Mary E. Jones Parrish was an African American teacher and journalist. According to legal scholar and author of Reconstruction the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921, Alfred L. Brophy, she was born February 29, 1892, in New York state. Parrish and her family moved from Yazoo City, Mississippi, to Boley, Oklahoma, where she attended Creek Seminole College, graduating in 1910. She then returned to New York to attend the Rochester Business Institute in Rochester, where she studied shorthand.

She moved back to Oklahoma with her daughter, Florence Mary, in 1918. She began teaching at the Natural Education school in McAlester, Oklahoma, before setting up her own school in the Woods building in Tulsa, which housed the all-Black Hunton branch of the YMCA on North Greenwood Avenue. There she taught typing and shorthand.

In 1919, the Southern Inter-racial Committee was established in Atlanta, Georgia, to study race relations in the South and advocate against racial violence. George Washington Buckner, and some of Tulsa’s Black leadership, including Reverend H. T. S. Johnson and undertaker S. M. Jackson, organized a local branch, the Inter-racial Committee of Tulsa and hired Parrish to write an account of the Massacre, collect testimonials from victims of the attack (which she published in her book in their raw form), and make an accounting of the businesses, homes, schools, churches, and the Frissell Memorial Hospital, destroyed by fire. She not only listed these locations by address but also listed the value of each property. Investigative journalism on this scale was rare for this time. Earlier examples include Nellie Bly’s reporting in the mid-1800s of low wages and unsafe working conditions for children in Pittsburgh factories, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases written in 1892 by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and long-form articles in political magazines launched in the 1900s such as Arena, The Crisis, and McClure’s.

Parrish wrote of her arrival in Greenwood and how inspired she felt by its community spirit. She gave a first-person account of the Massacre, recounting that at about 9:00 p.m on May 31, she had finished work and was trying to read a book, while her daughter kept interrupting her with news of crowds of people on the streets, people talking excitedly, and then men with guns. That got her attention. Parrish and her daughter watched and listened from the school throughout the night, too afraid to leave the building while fighting continued until about 1:30 a.m. They heard the 5:00 a.m. siren and thought the fighting might be over until they heard another sound, a loud buzzing. They went outside to find “a great shadow in the sky and upon a second look we discerned that this cloud was caused by fast approaching aeroplanes. It then dawned on us that the enemy had organized in the night and was invading our district the same as the Germans invaded France and Belgium.”

Finally able to escape the school later in the morning, mother and daughter ran to the home of family friends, identified only as the “Thompsons,” who had a truck and were fleeing to Claremore. Parrish describes driving past the Curtiss-Southwest Field, the hangar from where the planes were dispatched. “The planes were out of their sheds, all in readiness for flying, and these men with high powered rifles were getting into them.” They stayed in Claremore for a day and a night, then returned to Tulsa to find help at the Red Cross shelter, just beginning to assist the injured and those who needed food and clothing. She went on to describe her reporting process, the people she interviewed, and her insights while she worked. “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.” She also discussed the battle in front of the courthouse, and the burning of Greenwood the next morning as two separate events, writing, “Plans for an armed invasion of the Nego quarter by the Whites under protection of the city had been under way,” and that Greenwood was an “eyesore to some evil minded real estate men who saw the advantage of making this street into a commercial district.” Her work was compiled into a small book titled Events of the Tulsa Disaster, with her personal account in the first third, testimonials from survivors in the second third, and her list of Greenwood’s residential and business losses in the last section.

After the Massacre, Parrish taught at Langston University in the 1930s while completing a Bachelor of Science degree in education. In his biography of Parrish, Brophy speculates that she may have died in 1972. It would be quite interesting to discover any additional journalism work by Parrish. Events of the Tulsa Disaster is not only highly detailed but a brilliantly-composed work, at times expressing great emotion, and at times incredibly insightful, connecting the city’s attempted takeover of Greenwood to the Bolshevik Revolution, which had begun in 1917 and ended with the Marxist founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at the end of the Russian Civil War in 1922. The 1st-person narrative form of journalism that Parrish used in her book would be called groundbreaking and transformative nearly five decades later when emerging from the typewriters of writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.

Fewer than two dozen copies of Events of the Tulsa Disaster were printed in 1923. Another limited edition of the book was reprinted in 1998 by Out on a Limb Press with the help of Clarence Love (Parrish’s nephew by marriage), Lori N. Curtis, Associate Director of Special Collections at The University of Tulsa, and Scott Ellsworth. In a 1989 Tulsa World article, Clarence Love talked about wanting to re-publish this vital work, written by his, “Aunt Sweetie.” “The things that happened are getting older and older, and the people who know about it are getting scarcer and scarcer,” Love said. “If somebody doesn’t get it out, who’s going to tell the young folks?” The John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation printed another limited run of copies for attendees of the organization’s National Symposium in 2009.

Walter Francis White
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) wrote a four-page report of the Tulsa Massacre in the July 2, 1921, issue of The Crisis, the association’s monthly magazine published by W. E. B. DuBois. The article described that the NAACP would be creating a fund in support of Greenwood victims. Refugees from Tulsa arrived at the national NAACP offices in New York and told the organization that “warnings had been distributed weeks and months before the riot, telling colored people that they would have to leave Oklahoma before June 1, or suffer the consequences.”

The organization also wrote to President Warren G. Harding, stating in a telegram: “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People feels that an utterance from you at this time on the violence and reign of terror at Tulsa, Okla., would have an inestimable effect not only upon that situation but upon the whole country.” The Harding administration responded, stating, “Following the receipt of your telegram of June 2, the President, as you will have noticed, made a public expression of his regret and horror at the recent Tulsa tragedy, which reflected his sentiments.” The president’s comments were delivered at a commencement address on June 6, at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

In addition to the relief fund, the telegram to the president, and editorials placed in national newspapers, the NAACP also dispatched an investigative reporter to Tulsa. Walter F. White joined the NAACP’s national office in 1918 to investigate lynchings and riots. Though he was of mixed-race (African and European ancestry on both sides of his family), he was light-skinned and had blue eyes. He took full advantage of his ability to “pass” as white, interviewing members of the Ku Klux Klan, southern police, political leaders, and just about anyone he wanted to, asking difficult questions and acting as an undercover agent. On June 29, 1921, White published his report of the Tulsa Massacre “Eruption of Tulsa,” in The Nation, a liberal weekly magazine published by New York journalist and civil-rights activist Oswald Garrison Villard. 

In his article, White wrote, “Many are the stories of horror told to me—not by colored people—but by white residents.” He described airplanes being used to bomb Greenwood. He also discussed the rampant lawlessness in Tulsa, so widespread that insurance companies stopped granting policies on stocks. There were so many auto thefts that insurance companies also canceled policies on all cars in Tulsa. His general thesis was that Tulsa’s law enforcement was virtually non-existent and that Greenwood’s residents, many having reached a certain level of education and wealth, rejected passive obedience to whites and therefore were not afraid to assert their rights and defend their land. About the Rowland and Page story being the cause of the attack on Greenwood, White wrote, “It seems never to have occurred to the citizens of Tulsa that any sane person attempting criminally to assault a woman would have picked any place in the world rather than an open elevator in a public building with scores of people within calling distance.”

Eight years later, in a piece titled “I Investigate Lynchings,” written for American Mercury, White wrote about the more sinister motivations for the Massacre. “Efforts to purchase the land from the Negro owners at prices far below its value were unavailing. Having built up the neighborhood and knowing its value, the owners refused to be victimized.” The suspicions that Parrish had written about in 1923 were true; white businessmen had wanted to clear Greenwood of its Black population and take over its land.

B. C. Franklin and A. J. Smitherman
Shortly after the Massacre, attorney and newspaper publisher A. J. Smitherman wrote a series of poems, including “A Descriptive Poem of The Tulsa Race Riot and Massacre” and “Eulogy to the Tulsa Martyrs.” These poems are a mix of facts, demonization of the white mob that attacked Greenwood, and praise for the men who fought and died defending their neighborhood, describing them as heroes. “A Descriptive Poem” includes the following lines:

June the First, at five a.m.
Three long whistle blasts were heard,
Giving sign for concert action
To that cold blood-thirsty herd.

At the signal from the whistle
Aeroplanes were seen to fly,
Dropping bombs and high explosives,
Hell was falling from the sky.

On all sides the mob had gathered
Talking in excited tones
With machine guns, ready. Mounted,
Trained upon a thousand homes.

B. C. Franklin also wrote an account of what he witnessed during the Massacre, in the form of a ten-page manuscript, dated August 22, 1931. In this narrative (discovered in 2015), Franklin also describes the planes over Greenwood, writing, “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.” Franklin also described the balls soaked in turpentine that were dropped from the attacking planes. “The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top …” 

Both of these accounts are dismissed by journalists and historians. They are critiqued as being exaggerated, hyperbolic, and historically inaccurate. Franklin’s manuscript is particularly called into question, being written more than a decade after the Massacre. Knowing the capacity of the Curtiss-Southwest hangar, and reading from Mary Parrish’s work that some planes were still at the hangar while the attack on Greenwood was happening, it is unlikely that the number of planes flying over Greenwood numbered “a dozen or more” as described in Franklin’s manuscript. White’s article in The Nation mentions eight aircraft flying over Greenwood on the morning of June 1st, which seems far more historically accurate. Franklin seems to introduce fictional characters in his work and mentions that he is “from Tulsa” in 1917, when the historical record and his own autobiography don’t place him in Tulsa until March of 1921. In his book Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre, journalist Randy Krehbiel discusses that this work by Franklin may be historical fiction. 

And why not? Today the nation has gotten to know about the 1921 Race Massacre primarily through two works of historical fiction, HBO shows The Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. The depictions of the Massacre in these television series’ helped connect millions of viewers emotionally to the story of Greenwood. The historical facts exist elsewhere. Franklin, S. M. Jackson, Elisha Scott, and other attorneys had already presented the facts of the Massacre in their court cases, entered into the public record. A. J. Smitherman had already written extensively about preventing lynchings and racial violence in his newspaper articles. Both Smitherman and Franklin were highly educated, successful attorneys. They were also both of mixed Native and African heritage, and would have combined their formal western education with their ancestral ways of knowing. To these men, “facts” and “truth” were not necessarily synonymous. We see Smitherman appropriating the structured format of a Western epic poem to both process his thoughts and attempt to change the white narrative of the Massacre — making Greenwood’s Black defenders the heroes of his story. We see Franklin writing, perhaps not precisely what he saw, but what he wanted his readers to see. Both these ways of knowing trace their roots back to Africa’s oral traditions and continue today in modern hip hop.

Smitherman concluded a letter written to Walter F. White in January, 1922, with another poem, the last lines which read:

Fight, with banners flying high,
Yet the thing of more importance
Is the way they fought—and why!

To Smitherman, this is the most critical question to answer about the Massacre: Why did his neighbors and business colleagues have to fight a war on their own land? Why was Greenwood attacked the way it was, and why was the truth being hidden? These are questions we are still asking today, and it’s very likely that creative forms of truth-telling need to be expressed to get people to start thinking about the Massacre in a new way and find answers.