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Descendants of Tulsa Race Massacre survivors keep family history alive

A century after an angry white mob stormed in and destroyed a prosperous Tulsa, Oklahoma neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street,” the city and state as a whole still count on devastation and the enormous loss of human life that has occurred. For the descendants of Greenwood residents who survived the Tulsa Race Massacre, this is also a time to grapple with the legacy of what was lost, the heroism of their ancestors, and where exactly to go from. here.

“It really is a continuing unfolding of history,” Seth Bryant, a descendant of a massacre survivor, told NBC News. Bryant’s great-grandfather AJ Smitherman was the owner and publisher of The Tulsa Star, an influential black newspaper. Smitherman would become one of hundreds of survivors who fled the city after the massacre, eventually settling in Buffalo, New York.

Seth Bryant.Courtesy of Seth Bryant

Like many of Tulsa’s descendants, Bryant didn’t fully realize the extent of horror in his family until he reached adulthood.

“There’s a lot of information I’m learning about my great-grandfather, about my family, and it’s really mind-blowing,” he said.

Bryant noted that The Tulsa Star was viewed with suspicion for years before the massacre because of its coverage of politics and black rights.

“He was one of the community leaders considered to be the instigators of all of this,” said Bryant.

Smitherman would immortalize the horrors of the massacre in his writings.

“In one of his poems he describes a truly heartbreaking image of my great-grandmother and grandmother as a baby was in a house in the Greenwood section of Tulsa and how they hid in the basement when the crowds finally reached this area. “Bryant said.” They were in the basement and smelled the fire and they were able to escape. “

Despite the heartbreaking experiences the family had as they rebuilt their lives in a brand new city after the massacre, many older members of Bryant’s family never spoke out about what happened in public.

Although both of her great-grandparents died before she was born, “I had aunts and uncles who went through this experience,” said Bryant, 50, and a lawyer. “But I was a child. So they didn’t talk about these things very graphically at all. It wasn’t until I was growing up that, you know, they started talking about it a little bit, but they never dwelled on it.

Anneliese M. Bruner also did not learn that her grandmother and great-grandmother survived the massacre before the age of 30. One Christmas, while she was visiting her dad, “My dad pulled me aside and closed his door and said, ‘I have something I want to give to you,'” Bruner told NBC. News.

Anneliese Bruner’s parents, Jeraldine Bruner and William Bruner Jr., with Anneliese Bruner’s grandmother, Florence Mary Parrish Bruner.Family photo

He presented her with a copy of “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” a first-hand account of the 1921 massacre by Bruner’s great-grandmother, Mary E. Jones Parrish, which she had originally self-published. in the months that followed. Her father asked, “Do you think you could do something with this? “

This moment was both the first time Bruner had heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and his family had survived it.

“I obviously read it all in one go and was blown away by it all,” she said. “I had been following Black History and American History in high school and college and nothing was ever mentioned in any of those contexts.”

In May, Bruner and Trinity University Press reissued the book under the title “The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921”. The book recalls what it was like in the moments immediately leading up to the rampage of Parrish’s family home in Greenwood, then tells readers how Parrish and her young child, Bruner’s grandmother, Florence Mary Parrish Bruner, escaped notice. violence and what they saw as their neighborhood. burnt.

Trinity University Press

Parrish’s memories include when Florence, who was a toddler in 1921, alerted her mother to the violent crowd outside.

“As a little kid, I can only imagine how overwhelming it was to look out, see this, then get grabbed by your mom and run away on foot,” Bruner said of the comment. of his grandmother.

Bruner said she understood why survivors of the massacre were reluctant to talk about what they had witnessed.

“I have great compassion for the reasons why people may not have talked about this,” she said. “There is definitely an internalized feeling within the community that you don’t talk about this stuff.”

The past few years have seen an increased push to uncover the full story of the massacre. In 2015, the 1921 Tulsa Racing Massacre Centenary Commission was established to appropriately commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event. An important part of the early work was to build relationships and build trust with community members and organizations that work with the black community of Tulsa and reach out to the descendants of the massacre survivors.

“One of the very first key elements was addressing the lack of educational support and the fact that most people were not told about the massacre,” said Phil Armstrong, the commission’s project director, at NBC News.

But in addition to educating the public and commemorating the victims of the massacre, Bryant and Bruner say there needs to be more recognition of how the losses in Greenwood are still impacting families with roots in Tulsa. today. In the sequel to his great-grandmother’s book, Bruner recounts a conversation with a friend who also recently realized he was the descendant of a survivor of the Tulsa Massacre.

“He said reading my article he broke down in tears because his great-grandparents left Tulsa immediately after the massacre and went to Detroit and fought,” she said.

“Today, when there are refugees from the war scenes, there are governmental and international relief organizations to help them resettle,” she added. “There was nothing like it back then, certainly not for black people who were internally displaced people who were mainly fleeing persecution. “

For Bryant, a conversation about reconciliation must include a discussion of what is owed to the families who lost everything when Greenwood was destroyed.

“I haven’t seen it unfold in a way where there is nothing but a memory of an obvious atrocity,” Bryant said of current memorials. “Now, if you equate recognition with reward, then let’s talk about it.”

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