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Remembering Tulsa, 1921: Interview with Olivia Hooker

By Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman

Acumen Publisher

Before the racist rampage of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, its Black residents had grown particularly prosperous. Known as Black Wall Street, Tulsa epitomized African American racial uplift, economic pride, and the American Dream. After a Black boy bumped into a White girl elevator attendant in a downtown building, charges of rape and the call for a subsequent lynching rang out. This singular incident set off a scourge of mass murder and pillaging that leveled the town.


In 2015, I sat down with Dr. Olivia J. Hooker, the first Black female to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard and a survivor of the Tulsa Race Riots. The occasion was her 100th birthday celebration. On the centennial observation of the white mob violence that destroyed Tulsa, Acumen shares Hooker’s recollections.

Hooker rose from riot trauma and institutional racism, to earn a doctorate in psychology and teach at Fordham University in New York. She told Acumen that as a 6-year-old when the riot occurred, she found it difficult to reconcile the unprovoked attack on Black citizens by White mobs. That violence left thousands dead, homeless, wounded, and sexually violated.


Sitting before the Tulsa Race Riot Commission as one of its survivors, Hooker described Ku Klux Klansmen burning her doll’s clothes as they entered a home. Hooker asked her mother at the time of the riots, ‘How can it be hailing when the sun is shining brightly?’ She said her mother told her, “That is a machine gun up there on that hill, and there’s an American flag on it. That means your country is shooting at you.” Hooker’s father owned a clothing store in a prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, which was reduced to rubble.

“The state militia took all of the Black men [nearly 6,000] and disarmed them, holding them at the Convention Hall and Fairgrounds. Their guns were given to Whites who were told that with only the women and children remaining in the town, they were free to do as they wanted with them,” Hooker said.


The anger, though, had little to do with the alleged attack of the elevator operator, according to Hooker. In addition to the men who had been jailed, Black families attempting to leave Tulsa were detained at gunpoint by Whites on the road.

Hooker also noted that newspaper reports

of the elevator incident fabricated the minor skirmish into a full-scale sexual assault. Sarah Page, a 17-year-old divorcee, was portrayed as an orphan working to pay for school who had her clothing ripped and her face mauled in the attack.

Dick Rowland, the 19-year-old shoe shiner, was nicknamed Diamond Dick and characterized as a slick womanizer and high school dropout.


“The Black people in Tulsa knew that something was brewing and had been for a while. All that was needed was something to trigger the violence,” Hooker said. “There had been a number of incidents leading up to the riots, including the lynching of Laura Nelson and her boy from a bridge in nearby Okemah.”


Hooker would go on to assist the Tulsa Race Riot Commission develop its recommendations for restitution for survivors and testified in Congress in 2007.


“Our parents tried to tell us, don't spend your time agonizing over the past. They encouraged us to look forward and think how we could make things better,” Hooker said. “If you dwell on your misery, you're not helping yourself or anybody else. So, if you think, ‘What can I do to keep this from happening again?' that helps you to go forward, rather than spending your life pitying yourself.”


Olivia Juliette Hooker died peacefully, in her home in 2018 at the age of 103.