For nearly a century, the story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre has been shrouded in mystery to those unfamiliar with the narrative and tucked away in memories of many who’ve either refused to revisit it out of shame or rather not relive all the hurt it bore.
Its place in the annals of mass racial violence in America often gets lost in more renowned confrontations that occurred in Watts in 1965, Chicago in 1968, or some associated with the Red Summer riots of 1919.
But for survivors and descendants of the race massacre, the oral history — at least much of it — has long circulated throughout family trees and among generations past and present.
Over the last decade, Jean Neal has been documenting and researching almost everything there is to know about the race massacre.
As an administrative coordinator at John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, Neal has acquainted herself with the event and the people at the center of it.
Little did Neal know, that she — at least along her linage — was part of the massacre, too.
Last month, Neal discovered that she was a descendant through a revelation that her mother’s father had a connection to Tulsa a century ago.
“My mother was talking about it, and she never talks about her dad,” said Neal.
It turns out her grandfather, who came from a line of mechanics, was associated with the Miller family — a group that owned several businesses, including a garage and hotel in the Greenwood District.
“I was like, ‘wow, I didn’t know,’” she said. “I didn’t put the ages together when I should have.”
Like many Tulsans who grew up in the latter half of 20th century, the story of the race massacre, and its impact within the confines of the city, were largely kept under wraps.
Even being part of McLain High School’s first-ever Black history class as a student, said Neal, didn’t provide enlightenment, either.
“People were so quiet about it, “she said. “It was like an unspoken piece that people really didn’t talk about it.”
Years later, in her work with still-living survivors, she discovered the oral histories hadn’t always been passed down through generations due in large part to the trauma associate with what transpired.
“There are so many ways to look at how families felt at that time. I can see husbands at that time saying, ‘We don’t talk about that,’’ said Neal.
At 65, Neal still has a passion to tell the story of the race massacre to all who what to hear it. It’s both work and part of her legacy.
“I don’t know when I’m going to retire, but when I do I will be telling the story,” she said.
‘We create history’
Later this summer, Deborah Hunter will be part of a theatrical production that spans a period from the morning after the race massacre ended through the Civil Rights movement.
“Porches,” scheduled to run from June 18 through Aug. 2 at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, is described as a combination of “drama, music, movement and poetry.”
“I lived in Kansas at the time and I was visiting home,” she recalled. “And I talked to my grandmother and I asked her many questions about the massacre, because I didn’t know and this was earth shattering news to me.”
The woman who was Hunter’s only paternal grandmother had refused to share any details before begrudgingly admitting being one of several thousand Black residents placed in an internment camp days after the violence in Greenwood erupted.
“And I asked her how did she get out,” said Hunter. “She said, ‘Someone vouched for me.’”
Her curiosity about the race massacre piqued.
She soon discovered a picture of her mother’s oldest sister that now hangs inside the Greenwood Cultural Center. It was then she came to the realization that both sides of her family had been affected by the race massacre.
But a journey that started out as simply tracing family history developed into anger upon learning the disturbing accounts that caused so much grief.
“It was obvious that it (violence) was planned,” Hunter said. “It was not some uprising that just happened. The entire purpose was to wipe out the Black community. I became very angry as I was learning the truth.”
Hunter channeled that hurt into writing and poetry. She made it a point to start the tradition of passing down the story — the candid version — to her children.
“I think anytime we tell our stories we create history,” said Hunter. “History is important. And the fact that we have to interject ourselves into history is just infuriating.
“But I think it is important for us to tell our stories, because they’re not being taught. We have to be the ones to tell the truth.”
‘I’m so proud of their strength’
For Brenda Alford, who now leads the citizens’ oversight committee into the search for mass graves related to the massacre, it was not until 2003 — after receiving notification from a law firm that her name was included in a lawsuit for reparations — that she came upon family ties to 1921.
“That’s how I found out about that aspect of our family history and the race massacre,” she said. “And I have to say it was pretty devastating.”
Her own great-grandmother, who survived the massacre, died in 1925, is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery — a place she recently has stalked while researchers and a archaeological excavation team scanned unmarked burials to determine whether victims’ remains were housed there.
Her grandparents, James and Vasinora Nails Sr., operated several businesses in Greenwood before the massacre and records indicated one such business was located at the site of what is now Lacy Park.
As a youngster, much of her family’s experience during the race massacre remained secret, though Alford remembers hearing stories about her grandmother “having to hide in a church for some reason.”
What she later came to know was that her family "had to run for their lives" and venture to Golden Gate Park for safety before returning back to Greenwood to find their businesses looted and burned to the ground.
It was also Oaklawn where relatives often hinted of clues to the past, too.
When I was a little girl, and whenever we’d pass by the cemetery, the comment would be made, “You know they’re still over there,’” she said.
Decades later, as the city prepares to recognize the race massacre centennial, Alford has come to grips with what she described as “bittersweet” emotions.
“The sweet part is the fact that I am so proud of the (family) legacy,” Alford said. “I’m so proud of their strength and their courage and their resilience. It is something that I try to carry with me every day of my life.”
The disdain comes from a place that her family — like dozens of Black families and individuals — being stripped of an opportunity to prosper in a community that was specifically designed for that purpose.
“It was unfortunate,” she said.
While the reverberations from the race massacre are still raw a century later, the healing process will only truly begin if Tulsa, noted Alford, confronts what transpired.
“It was history that was held under the rug for so long,” she said. “And now the community is talking about it. I think there’s a healing process. At the end of the day, let’s talk about it.”
‘They were able to survive’
Ruth Dean Nash was responsible for relaying the story of the race massacre to her grandson Nash McQuarters at an early age.
McQuarters would accompany his grandmother, who was a 5-year-old in 1921, to annual survivor events and services around Tulsa to commemorate the occasion.
McQuarters' grandmother — just a toddler at the time — was loaded inside a truck with her parents and siblings to a safe haven in Muskogee.
"They had to go into hiding after the massacre," he said. "They were picked up and taken to a shelter where other families and children were taken."
The more he learned about his family's story, the more pride developed despite the strife they endured.
“I say pride because of knowing what they went through,” he said. “They were able to survive and share their stories. I’m now able to say I’m a descendant of a survivor.”
A senior admission counselor at Tulsa Community College, McQuarters — in his own way — has kept the tale of the race massacre alive through performance art and other means.
He’s portrayed O.W. Gurley in stage productions and participated in youth-centered speaking sessions recounting what he knows about the event.
It is a far cry from McQuarters’ previous reluctance to engage out of frustration that locals should have already familiarized themselves with the narrative.
“I hated having to tell everyone about the massacre because I felt that we should know,” he said. “I think now that I’m older, I realize that everyone doesn’t know and I’d like to be able to explain the stories of survivors.”
What would his grandmother have to say about McQuarters continuing to share?
“I think she would appreciate it,” he said.
‘This is part of me’
State Rep. Regina Goodwin has lived the Greenwood District all of her life and she’s never known a time not being aware of the race massacre.
Her grandfather owned the book, “Events of a Tulsa Disaster” written by Mary E. Jones Parrish that contained a lot of the early details of the riot.
The piece of literature was considered so sacred that it was locked away and a key would be required to access it.
“I knew the history was very special. The history was very special because it (the book) was literally kept, in terms of safekeeping, under lock and key,” said Goodwin, whose great-grandfather was a prominent businessman at the time of the massacre. “It’s just always been part of the family and part of hearing about it. They were very open with the story.”
Through her community service efforts and work as an elected official, Goodwin has always relished the opportunity to assist others with material needs, including facilitating conversations with adults about the massacre who might have yet to comprehend the significance of why it all matters.
“Our history is important,” she said. “This is an American story. I grew up on Greenwood. I represent the Greenwood District. I am a descendant of race massacre survivors. This is part of me.”
‘A conspiracy of silence’
Kavin Ross is currently chairman of the committee overseeing Tulsa’s mass graves search.
Ross, whose great-grandfather owned Isaac Evitts Zulu Lounge at the current site of the Black Wall Street Mural, explained that relatives suppressed details about the massacre for years out of anguish.
Others he learned, mainly whites, refused to discuss the event because “it was a stain on the city” and Blacks were equally tight-lipped over concerns there would be retribution for doing so.
“My father called it a conspiracy of silence,” said Ross.
Ross' great grandfather eventually moved from Oklahoma never to return after his business burned down.
"I wish there were some pictures to give me an idea of what it (the business) looked like," Ross said. "He attempted to rebuild but was not successful. I now understand the anger of my great aunt, my great grandmother and my grandmother. They were just so angry at the thought about what happened and what could have been in today's times."
Upon living in Houston for 15 years, Ross moved back to Tulsa in the early 1990s to help tell the story after being inspired by scholar John Hope Franklin recount the accounts of 1921 in the PBS documentary “Goin’ Back to T-Town.”
Ross later discovered, in a conversation with Franklin, that he and his father, Don Ross, were acquaintances.
The drive to further delve into race massacre history came by way of the Oklahoma City bombing.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Ross recalled his father being interviewed by a national television network and correcting a reporter who stated it was the worst assault on American soil since the Civil War.
“He said the ‘worst one occurred in Tulsa about an hour away,’” said Ross. “And that began the story of Tulsa.”
For several decades, Ross collected testimonies of survivors for the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. He worked with Eddie Faye Gates, a historian, recording interviews and documenting it all.
These days, he shares his insights with children and anyone else who might have an interest in something that has consumed his own life for the last 30 years.
“This is a history that is so fresh and yet it has been hidden,” he said. “We are finding new stuff every day. What better way to honor the youth and empower them with the knowledge to study hard and make a better future.”
Tulsa Race Massacre 100th anniversary: Meet 10 Tulsans who are helping promote the history