Memory  /  Oral History

Meet The Last Surviving Witness to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

Olivia Hooker was 6 at the time of the riot, considered to be one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.

When Dick Rowland, a young black man, was accused of assaulting a young white woman in an elevator in May 1921, things escalated quickly. He was arrested and word spread that white mobs were headed to the courthouse, intending to lynch him.

The mobs were met by a group of armed black men, many of whom were World War I veterans. After a confrontation, shots were fired, and thus began a day-long assault on Greenwood. In less than 24 hours, 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.

"My father's store was destroyed," Hooker says. "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."

"Fires had been started by the white invaders soon after 1 o'clock and other fires were set from time to time. By 8 o'clock practically the entire thirty blocks of homes in the negro quarters were in flames and few buildings escaped destruction. Negroes caught in their burning homes were in many instances shot down as they attempted to escape."
The New York Times, June 2, 1921

Reports varied wildly. Initial estimates put the death toll somewhere between 36 and 85. One report, released by Maurice Willows who directed the American Red Cross relief efforts, estimated that as many as 300 people were killed. Today, the Tulsa Race Riot is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history.
"In all of my experience I have never witnessed such scenes as prevailed in this city when I arrived at the height of the rioting. Twenty-five thousand whites, armed to the teeth, were ranging the city in utter and ruthless defiance of every concept of law and righteousness. Motor cars, bristling with guns swept through your city, their occupants firing at will.'"
— Adjutant General Charles J. Barrett, The New York Times, June 3, 1921

As of June 1, 1921, an estimated 9,000 people were homeless. Many left Tulsa, including the Hookers who moved to Topeka, Kan. Others started to rebuild and the riots began to fade from public memory.