Mary Parrish hurried home, anxious to finish a novel that she had begun the day before. During an era in which African-American women were routinely forced to the lowest levels of US society, Parrish stood out as a talented writer and successful entrepreneur: she ran her own secretarial school, where she taught typewriting, business correspondence and clerical skills to young black women hoping to find work as office clerks. Parrish was also a single mother, and she and her seven-year-old daughter, Florence, lived on Greenwood Avenue, in the heart of the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Within walking distance from their home, there were two theatres, dozens of restaurants, a public library, grocery stores and dress shops, doctors’ offices and billiard parlours. “On Greenwood one could find a variety of business places which would be a credit to any section of the town,” Parrish wrote. Tuesday 31 May 1921 was a warm spring evening, and there was plenty to do and see.
Only Parrish wasn’t interested. Fetching her daughter from a neighbour, the two climbed the stairs to their second-storey apartment. Little Florence took her place on the sofa along the windows, where she could watch the automobile and pedestrian traffic along Greenwood Avenue, while her mother sunk into her favourite chair, looking forward to a quiet evening of reading. That wasn’t going to happen, though. Within a couple of hours, Florence would watch an unfolding drama outside, as African-American men and women, some with guns, gathered on the street below. And before the clock on the mantel struck midnight, Mary Parrish and her daughter would find themselves at ground zero in the worst single incident of racial violence in American history.
Less than 40 years old, Tulsa was then known as the “Magic City”. Set along the banks of the Arkansas river in north-eastern Oklahoma, it had been a sleepy Creek Indian and cowboy town until 1905, when the discovery of the then richest small oil field on Earth transformed Tulsa into the oil capital of the world. By 1921, the city boasted skyscrapers, banks and movie theatres, churches with soaring steeples and more than 100,000 residents. In the wealthiest neighbourhoods, newly minted oil barons built massive Italianate and Tudor mansions and stocked them with antique furniture, crystal chandeliers and Renaissance art. Money had literally flowed out of the ground.
And some of it had made its way to the city’s African-American population. While black people were barred from employment in the oil fields, there was plenty of work for African-American men and women as maids, domestic workers and chauffeurs in the homes of rich white people, or as cooks, dishwashers, ditch-diggers and common labourers downtown. Black Tulsans, including a large number of women, worked in white neighbourhoods during the week, where they drew good pay cheques, but they spent their money in the African-American community of Greenwood.
As a result, the Greenwood commercial district – later renamed Black Wall Street – flourished. A handful of black merchants, such as John and Loula Williams (who owned the Dreamland Theater, the East End Garage, a confectionery and an office building), became genuinely wealthy. But scores of other African-American entrepreneurs, who owned much more modest businesses, were also successful. More importantly, they helped each other. “It was said that a dollar bill changed hands more than a dozen times before it ever left Greenwood,” newspaper editor Jim Goodwin once told me. As a result, the community was an especially vibrant district, whose residents were able to carve out lives of dignity and, despite segregation, a degree of independence. As John Williams would tell his young son: “I came out to the promised land.”
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