Meet The Last Surviving Witness To The Tulsa Race Riot Of 1921 : Code Switch Olivia Hooker was 6 at the time of the riot. Now, at 103, Hooker is believed to be the last surviving witness to what is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.
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Meet The Last Surviving Witness To The Tulsa Race Riot Of 1921

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Meet The Last Surviving Witness To The Tulsa Race Riot Of 1921

Meet The Last Surviving Witness To The Tulsa Race Riot Of 1921

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On this day in 1921, a group of white residents launched an attack on a black middle-class neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla. Beginning on the evening of May 31 and continuing to the following day, white mobs stormed into black homes and schools and businesses. The Tulsa Race Riot is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. As part of our series Last Witness, Radio Diaries brings us the story of 103-year-old Olivia Hooker.

OLIVIA HOOKER: My name is Olivia J. Hooker. And I may be the last survivor of the catastrophe in Tulsa.

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HOOKER: The black part of Tulsa, it was a neighborhood where you could be treated with respect. My father had a very nice store - Samuel D. Hooker and Son. It was a store that didn't carry shoddy things. They had Arrow shirts, Kuppenheimer suits, Florsheim shoes and Stetson hats. And those were all good names in those days.

It was May 31, 1921. At first we saw a bunch of men with those big pine torches come through the backyard. And I remember. Our mother put us under the table. She took the longest tablecloth she had to cover four children and told us not to say a word. It was a horrifying thing for a little girl who's only 6 years old - trying to remember to keep quiet, so they wouldn't know we were there. As those marauders came into the house, they were trying to destroy anything that they could find. They took a huge axe and started whacking at my sister Aileen's beloved piano - whack, whack, whack. It was a good piano. And they thought that was something we shouldn't have.

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HOOKER: When they left, they went on, you know, to do more damage to people who lived beside us and down the hill. They tried to destroy every black business, school and church. Our school - Dunbar School was blasted with dynamite. And my father's store was destroyed. I mean, 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.

To me, I guess the most shocking thing was seeing people to whom you had never done anything to irritate who just took it upon themselves to destroy your property because they didn't want you to have those things. And they were teaching you a lesson. Those were all new ideas to me. But I guess that's part of the growing up process. After the riot, we didn't stay in Tulsa. We moved to Topeka. Our parents tried to tell us, don't spend your time agonizing over the past. They encouraged us to look forward and think how you could make things better. I think things can get better. But maybe it won't be in a hurry.

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KELLY: The Tulsa Race Riot leveled the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, destroying more than 1,000 homes and businesses. It is estimated that as many as 300 people were killed. Olivia Hooker went on to become the first African-American woman to join the U.S. Coast Guard. She then earned a doctorate in psychology and helped form the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in 1997 to investigate the massacre and make a case for reparations. This story was produced by Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries, along with Joe Richman, Sarah Kate Kramer, edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. To hear more stories from Radio Diaries, you can find the podcast at radiodiaries.org.

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