Olivia Hooker dies at age 103 — last-known survivor of 1921 Tulsa ‘race riot’

Olivia Hooker

The life of Olivia Juliet Hooker came to an end this year with her death on Nov. 21.  She was born Feb. 12, 1915, in Muskogee, Okla., one of five children. Janis Porter, Hooker’s goddaughter, said she died at their White Plains, N.Y., home.  Her mind was clear, and she did not have dementia, but she was just tired. She had no surviving relatives.

Hooker was the last known survivor of the 1921 racist attack in Tulsa, Okla. Over the decades, she referred to it as a “Catastrophe,” stating that “other people call it the Tulsa race riot.  It wasn’t a riot. We were victims.” (New York Times, Nov. 23)

The Tulsa massacre is often referred to as one of the deadliest episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.  Ignored for a long time, it took a struggle by survivors and their relatives to bring the truth to public view.

Dr. Hooker was a founder in 1997 of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which issued a report four years later, exposing a cover-up by city and state officials.  In 2003, Hooker joined a lawsuit with 400 plaintiffs against Tulsa and Oklahoma, but the Supreme Court dismissed it. On Feb. 20, Oklahoma legislators announced the 1921 racist attack would be added to an online public school curriculum.

The ‘Catastrophe’

In 1921, the segregated, self-sufficient Black business and residential community thrived in Greenwood. This 40-square block area in Tulsa was known as “Black Wall Street.”  

On May 31, false rumors circulated that Dick Rowland, a Black teenage shoe shiner, had sexually assaulted a white female elevator operator.  He was in a downtown building in order to use the only bathroom available to Black people. The Oklahoma Historical Society later reported that Rowland probably tripped and stepped on her foot, causing her to scream.  He was exonerated in September.

A white lynch mob stormed the courthouse where Rowland was taken after his arrest.  What ensued was a two-day, torch-carrying rampage and terrorist attack on Greenwood’s Black community. During the massacre, racists set on fire and destroyed thousands of businesses, including stores, theatres, hospital, schools and homes.  Hundreds of Black people were injured or murdered, some even burned alive. Bodies were dumped throughout the city, as well as thrown in the river. There are unmarked mass graves. City and state officials were slow to publicly acknowledge these horrific events.

Olivia Hooker was only six years old when the Tulsa massacre occurred.  She recalled that her mother ordered her and her siblings to hide under the dining room table and be quiet.  From under the table, Hooker heard people using an axe to destroy the family piano. She witnessed her grandmother’s bed being soaked in kerosene, her first “ethnic” doll’s handmade clothes being torched on the clothesline, food on the stove being dumped on the floor, and the house being ransacked.

It was horrifying trying to keep quiet as a child, she said: “The most shocking was seeing people you’d never done anything to irritate would just, took it upon themselves to destroy your property because they didn’t want you to have those things.  And, they were teaching us a lesson. Those were new ideas to me,” Hooker stated. (NY Times, Nov. 23)

‘They smashed everything …’

The Washington Post reported on Nov. 22 that Dr. Hooker stated in a June interview, “We could see what they were doing.  They took everything they thought was valuable. They smashed everything they couldn’t take. My mother had [opera singer Enrico] Caruso records she loved.  They smashed the Caruso records. It took me a long time to get over my nightmares. I was keeping my family awake screaming.”

Her father’s business was destroyed, and Hooker’s family moved to Topeka. Kan., but they subsequently returned to Tulsa, where she attended high school and then moved to Ohio. Hooker enlisted in the Women’s Reserve of the Coast Guard in early 1945, becoming one of the first African-American women to sign up.   

Hooker got her M.A. from Columbia University and her Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Rochester. From 1963 until her retirement in 1985, she was a senior clinical lecturer at Fordham University.  She was also a civil rights activist.

The New York Times reported on Oct. 4 that there are still racial disparities in Tulsa.  The Greenwood section remains predominantly Black. The impact of anger, fear and trauma linger.

The article said that Tulsa Mayor G.I. Bynum has renewed efforts to locate  the victims’ mass graves, further uncover the history of the racist attack, and provide closure for the victims and their families.  He stated: “It’s one of the defining events for our city. We … [still] grapple with not just the event itself, but also a racial reconciliation in the aftermath of it.  We can’t hope to reconcile as a city if we’re not committed to doing everything we need to fully understand what happened in 1921.”

‘It’s about what we give to this world’

The community mourned Dr. Olivia Hooker’s death at a two-hour service of remembrance on Nov. 23 at the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church on Greenwood Avenue near downtown Tulsa.  Rep. Regina Goodwin stressed: “This was not a riot, this was a massacre. This was no new-fangled thing young folks came up with. It was Dr. Hooker who said this was a massacre.” (newson6.com, Nov. 23)

The Rev. Dr. Robert Turner said: “She had to leave everything she and her family knew.  That didn’t deter her. She continued on in her education, got a Ph.D., and went on to serve her country.  A country that never really did much for her as far as justice,” reported the same media.

When asked what kept her going, Dr. Olivia Hooker answered, “It’s not about you, or me, it’s about what we can give to this world.” (BBC News, Nov. 25)

An article titled “Dr. Olivia Hooker, teacher, survivor of 1921 Tulsa racist attack,” by Dolores Cox was posted April 6.

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