Dr. Olivia Hooker is a 101-year-old survivor of the horrific racist attack on the African-American community in Tulsa, Okla., known as the Tulsa race riot. To this day, she remembers the devastating, traumatic experience of rioters coming onto her family’s property on May 31, 1921.
Throughout U.S. history, there have been deliberate efforts to keep African Americans at the bottom of society. Black people have consistently been the targets of racial hatred and violence. The law of the land continues to be white supremacy and privilege. This country is rife with racism, which is exported worldwide through imperialist propaganda and war. Due to centuries of social, economic and political disenfranchisement, the Black population has much catching up to do.
Just two generations after the abolition of slavery, descendents of enslaved people in the Greenwood section of Tulsa created a thriving, self-sufficient community that was a center for business and wealth. Greenwood was known as “Black Wall Street.” Residents built and cultivated homes, schools, churches, restaurants, banks, theaters, hospitals, hotels and stores. Its residents were among the best educated African Americans in the country.
Racists razed Greenwood
However, African Americans’ attempts to rise up and move beyond oppression were defeated. Greenwood was prosperous, but its growth was short-lived. Those who dared to dream — and substitute commercial success for segregation — were shoved back down to the status quo. Racial hatred kept the entire community from reaching their goals in a country which deprived them of their basic rights and dignity.
Resentment by hostile whites who were determined to maintain white dominance exploded into mob violence. Acts of hatred lasted throughout the day into the night in Greenwood. Rifle shots were fired from planes; firebombs were dropped.
White rioters ransacked and looted homes and businesses before burning them down. They destroyed more than 1,000 homes, leaving 10,000 Black people homeless. The racists murdered an estimated 300 people and injured 800; others died trapped in the fires. Even the police shot residents. Within 16 hours, the entire community of 35 city blocks was obliterated.
Martial law was declared. The National Guard did not arrest the racists, but rounded up and detained thousands of African Americans, some for several days. Men and boys were placed in internment camps. All the weapons they had for self-protection were confiscated and given to whites. Lynching was prevalent then throughout the South.
Hooker family attacked
Dr. Hooker was born in Muskogee, Okla., in 1915. When she was three years old, the family moved to Tulsa. When the riot occurred, Dr. Hooker was six. Racists burned the doll clothes her grandmother made that were hanging on the clothesline. Inside the house, the assailants broke or stole the family’s possessions. They even destroyed the food on the stove. Then they took away her father and eight-year-old brother.
After the racist attack, Dr. Hooker’s mother and five children moved to Topeka, Kan. Her father stayed behind to try to rebuild his department store. A year later, the family moved back to Tulsa, attempting to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. After two years, the family moved to Columbus, Ohio, as Dr. Hooker’s father had been offered a job there. Both parents had been teachers.
While living in Columbus during the Great Depression, Dr. Hooker earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Ohio State University in 1937. In 1945, she was the first African-American woman to join the U.S. Coast Guard. She had applied to the U.S. Navy WAVES, but was rejected because of her ethnicity. She disputed the rejection and was later accepted, but chose instead to join the Coast Guard to break the color barrier there. After basic training in Brooklyn, N.Y., she headed to Boston, where she was assigned administrative duties in the Women’s Reserve (SPARS) and earned the rank of petty officer second class.
Dr. Hooker received a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City in 1947. She received her doctorate in psychology from the University of Rochester in 1961 and then worked as an in-house psychologist at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. In 1963, she began working as a senior clinical lecturer in psychology at Fordham University and became an assistant professor there until 1985.
Dr. Hooker co-founded the American Psychological Association’s Division of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. At 87, she retired in 2002. At 95, she volunteered with the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Yonkers, N.Y.
The NY City Council and NYS Senate honored Dr. Hooker with proclamations in 2011. She received the APA Presidential Citation and the NYS Veteran’s Hall of Fame award. In 2015 Congress honored her, and the Coast Guard named a Staten Island dining facility and a training facility in Washington, D.C., after her. President Barack Obama also recognized her Coast Guard service and legacy at the academy’s annual commencement that year.
City, state, courts deny reparations
It wasn’t until 2001 that the city of Tulsa formally apologized for destroying Greenwood. Two years later, Dr. Hooker and other survivors founded the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and filed a lawsuit against Tulsa and Oklahoma, demanding reparations for millions of dollars in damages. Their demands included health care for descendants living in Greenwood and scholarships for area students to attend Historically Black Colleges.
Attorneys Charles Ogletree and Johnnie Cochran represented the commission, whose requests were denied. Appellate courts upheld the decision. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case. No victims or their descendants received compensation. Mentions of the riot were omitted from local and state histories, books and classrooms for decades.
Riot survivor Ophelia Johnson Livingston, 101, was six years old during the racist attack, but doesn’t remember it. Other members of the commission included Otis Clark, who died at age 109 in 2012, and Lucille Figueres, who died a year later at 104. Few survivors remain.
Dr. Hooker has been a psychologist, humanitarian and women’s rights advocate, despite the difficulties she faced due to her skin color. She is resilient and asserts that everyone must strive toward preventing other catastrophic violence like the Tulsa attack. She has devoted much of her life to educating young people, so that subsequent generations will be more tolerant of racial diversity than previous generations.