STILL FIGHTING AT 100
Dr. Olivia Juliet Hooker celebrated her 100th birthday on February 12, 2015. The first African American woman to serve in the Coast Guard as a SPAR (Semper Paratus Always Ready), she was also one of the first to receive a Ph.D. at the University of Rochester. A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, active in United Methodist Women, Hooker has mentored dozens of students in her work as a psychology teacher and therapist. Dr. Hooker’s professional accomplishments are impressive, and she is living history as the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa massacre and the evisceration of Black Wall Street that occurred on May 31, 1921.
Dr. Hooker is still sharing her memories of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, an area called Little Africa or Black Wall Street because the African American community there was so strong. Says Dr. Hooker, “We did not have to go downtown” because the community offered everything anyone needed, except a bank. Her father, Samuel Hooker, owned a department store and was a pillar in a community that included pharmacists, doctors, and teachers. One of the many lawyers in Greenwood was John Hope Franklin, Sr., the father of our esteemed historian who carried the same name.
Too many call the Tulsa massacre a “riot” which ignores the fact that White people, purely out of economic envy, destroyed a thriving Black community. Their excuse – a young Black man, Dick Rowland, touched Sarah Page, who was operating the elevator he rode on. Some say he stumbled as the elevator stopped abruptly, but by the time the story circulated in the White Tulsa community, it was said that Dick Rowland had raped Sarah Page.
That was the excuse White Tulsa needed to act on their economic envy. Dr. Hooker recalls that Whites in Tulsa had been stockpiling weapons to attack the Black community even before the much-exaggerated incident. Newspaper accounts of the Tulsa massacre have disappeared, but Hooker recalls that one paper had the headline, “Negro To Be Lynched Tonight.” The lynching never happened because African American World War I veterans went to the jail to guard Rowland, bringing their weapons to ensure that the young man would not be hurt. The fact that Black men were willing to defend one of their own, along with the rumor of a rape, incited White Tulsans to destroy over a thousand Black-owned homes and businesses and to cause the deaths of between three hundred and one thousand people.
Dr. Hooker was six years old at the time of the massacre. She vividly remembers hearing some of the shots fired at her home before she and her family had to flee. Hooker says that when she looked out of a window at her home to see guns pointed, her mother told her that the machine guns on the hill sported an American flag, which means “your country is shooting at you.”
Dr. Hooker, at 100, is still talking about Greenwood and Black Wall Street, still insisting that the handful of survivors and their descendants deserve justice, restitution and reparations. The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot recommended the same thing after spending several years to investigate the massacre. They submitted a report to the Oklahoma legislature in 2001, but their recommendations have been ignored.
In her travels Dr. Hooker has been accompanied by attorney Gail Wright Sirmans, a neighbor and friend who works with Dr. Hooker because “she inspires me”. Wright Sirmans describes Dr. Hooker as an invincible woman with amazing inner strength. “She comes off as a little old lady,” Wright Sirmans says, “but she is anything but. She is powerful, passionate and dedicated to fairness, and equally important she is gracious, humble, and kind.” Dr. Hooker is also an independent spirit who still cooks for herself and only stopped driving a few years ago when her car gave out.
Many of Dr. Hooker’s memories reflect our rich Black history. She met Booker T. Washington when she was in elementary school. She remembers Walter White coming to Tulsa after the massacre and mingling with Whites to gather information (Walter White could pass for White, and had to be rushed out of town when Whites caught on to his ruse). She recalls that the local Red Cross would only offer cots and sheets to survivors of the massacre if recipients would clean their homes. White advised Black Tulsans to rebuff the insulting offer so that the Black church and the national Red Cross could offer help.
Some of the horrors of Tulsa in 1921 are documented in Before They Die, a film that features Dr. Hooker and many of the survivors. Dr. Kimberly Ellis, known as “Dr. Goddess” also wrote about Tulsa in her Perdue University dissertation a few years ago. As harrowing as Dr. Hooker’s memories are, there are few who remain committed to lifting up the Tulsa story and fighting for justice and reparations. It is quite one thing to celebrate and honor Dr. Hooker, but it is another to accept her legacy by continuing the fight for justice. Gail Wright Sirmans is one who has accepted the challenge. Are there any others?