A black female centenarian from Oklahoma may now be the last surviving witness of the deadly Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
Olivia Hooker was only six years old on May 31, 1921, when a white mob entered her black middle-class neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa and terrorized the community for the next 24 hours.
Hooker’s mother hid her and her three siblings under the dining room table when a group of white men entered her home, she told Radio Diaries in a new radio series called “Last Witness”, which features portraits of the last surviving witnesses to major historical events.
“It was a horrifying thing for a little girl who’s only six years old,” she said. “Trying to remember to keep quiet, so they wouldn’t know we were there.”
The root of the unrest was the arrest of Dick Rowland, a young black man accused of assaulting a young white woman in an elevator. News quickly spread that a white mob was rising up and coming to lynch him. The mob was met by an armed group of African-American men, many of whom were World War I veterans.
According to NPR, an armed standoff ensued, and “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.” Up to an estimated 300 people were killed, though the exact death toll is unknown.
For Hooker, she witnessed them tear down items in her home, as well as the complete destruction of her father’s clothing business. Her family picked up soon after and moved to Topeka, Kan. as their once thriving neighborhood was now lost.
“It was a neighborhood where you could be treated with respect,” Hooker says of the neighborhood many once called “Black Wallstreet”.
Hooker went on to become the first African-American woman to join the U.S. Coast Guard and earn a doctorate degree in psychology. She is now 103 years old.
“Our parents tried to tell us, don’t spend your time agonizing over the past,” Hooker says. “They encouraged us to look forward and think how we could make things better.”