On May 31, 1921, six-year-old Olivia Hooker was home with her family in Tulsa, Okla., when a group of white men came through the backyard carrying torches. Her mother quickly hid Olivia and her three siblings under the dining room table, covering them with a tablecloth and told them not to make a sound.
“It was a horrifying thing for a little girl who’s only six years old,” she told Radio Diaries, “trying to remember to keep quiet, so they wouldn’t know we were there.”
The men entered the house and began to destroy anything they could find of value. They broke her father’s record player and took an ax to her sister Irene’s beloved piano before moving on to other homes and businesses in the community.
Before the events in May of 1921, the Greenwood district of Tulsa was a predominately African-American neighborhood, known for its thriving middle-class. The main strip, Greenwood Avenue, was lined with successful black-owned businesses, including the Hooker family’s store, which sold quality brand-named clothes.
“It was a neighborhood where you could be treated with respect,” Hooker says.
Greenwood may have been a haven for African-Americans, but the state of Oklahoma had strict laws limiting the rights of black people. Schools, hospitals, trains, stores, restaurants, even public phone booths were segregated and miscegenation was a felony. Lynchings were not uncommon and by 1920, the Ku Klux Klan was reemerging in the state.
The riot begins
When Dick Rowlands, a young black man, was accused of assaulting a young white woman in an elevator in May 1921, things escalated quickly. He was arrested and word spread that white mobs were headed to the courthouse, intending to lynch him.
The mobs were met by a group of armed black men, many of whom were World War I veterans. After a confrontation, shots were fired, and thus began a day-long assault on Greenwood. In less than 24 hours, the white mobs destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses. They set fire to schools, churches, libraries, and movie theaters, leveling entire city blocks.
“My father’s store was destroyed,” Hooker says. “There was nothing left but one big safe. It was so big they couldn’t carry it away, so they had to leave it — in the middle of the rubble.”
“Fires had been started by the white invaders soon after 1 o’clock and other fires were set from time to time. By 8 o’clock practically the entire thirty blocks of homes in the negro quarters were in flames and few buildings escaped destruction. Negroes caught in their burning homes were in many instances shot down as they attempted to escape.”
— The New York Times, June 2, 1921
Reports varied wildly. Initial estimates put the death toll somewhere between 36 and 85. One report, released by Maurice Willows who directed the American Red Cross relief efforts, estimated that as many as 300 people were killed. Today, the Tulsa Race Riot is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history.
“In all of my experience I have never witnessed such scenes as prevailed in this city when I arrived at the height of the rioting. Twenty-five thousand whites, armed to the teeth, were ranging the city in utter and ruthless defiance of every concept of law and righteousness. Motor cars, bristling with guns swept through your city, their occupants firing at will.'”
— Adjutant General Charles J. Barrett, The New York Times, June 3, 1921
As of June 1, 1921, an estimated 9,000 people were homeless. Many left Tulsa, including the Hookers who moved to Topeka, Kan. Others started to rebuild and the riots began to fade from public memory.
For decades, the events of 1921 were rarely discussed or taught in school. But in 1971, Impact Magazine editor Don Ross published one of the first accounts of the race riots in nearly 50 years. He went on to become a state representative and, along with State Senator Maxine Horner, is credited with bringing national attention to the buried history.
“Our parents tried to tell us, don’t spend your time agonizing over the past,” Olivia Hooker says. “They encouraged us to look forward and think how we could make things better.”
In 1945, Hooker became the first African-American woman to join the U.S. Coast Guard. She went on to earn a doctorate degree in psychology and helped form the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in 1997 to investigate the massacre and make a case for reparations. Dr. Hooker is now 103 years old and thought to be the last surviving witness to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
This story was produced by Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries along with Joe Richman, Sarah Kate Kramer, and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Special thanks to the Tulsa Historical Society and the Greenwood Cultural Center. This story is the first in a new series from Radio Diaries and NPR called Last Witness, which features portraits of the last surviving witnesses to major historical events. Send us your ideas for the series by using the hashtag #LastWitness. To hear more stories from Radio Diaries, subscribe to their podcast at www.radiodiaries.org.