I Have Been Told

A column by Anne M. Dunn

Olivia J Hooker and terror in Tulsa

One of the most vivid childhood memories of Olivia J Hooker was June 21, 1921. She was six years old and remembers hearing heavy thudding noises outside their house. Her mother took her to the window and pointed to the hill were a machine gunner was stationed. Her mother said, “That is a machine gun on that hill, and there’s an American flag on it. That means that your country is shooting at you.”

Olivia had been born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, 2-12-1915. Her family moved to Tulsa a few years later. Her father, Samuel, operated a clothing store in the Greenwood District and her mother, Anita, was a former teacher.

“It was a very good life in those days,” she said, “because the businessmen of Greenwood had everything that the population of black people needed, we did not have to go downtown for anything, except the bank… so, we were very satisfied, and our egos were very strong because we had never been persecuted.”

But all that changed when a mob entered their home. The children had gone under the table where they saw and heard the whole thing.

“They got angry,” she remembered, “because my mother didn’t run and she had the nerve to be cooking breakfast. So the first thing they did was to take my mother’s pots of food out and dumped it in the dirt. Then they took the biscuits out of the oven and trampled them in the dirt. Then they poured oil on my grandmother’s bed.”

She described her father’s persistent efforts over the next seven years to sue the insurance company, which refused to compensate them for damages. In 1997, 104 survivors of the Tulsa Race Riots initiated a class action suit but the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Greenwood had been one of the wealthiest African American communities in the US during the early 20th century. It was also known as America’s Black Wall Street until the terroristic acts of white mobs massacred black residents and razed the neighborhood in one of the most devastating massacres in the history of US race relations.

Many Black Americans had moved to Oklahoma in 1907, the year Oklahoma became a state. Most of them traveled from other states.

Many of them were relatives of black Americans who had traveled on foot with the Five Civilized Tribes along the Trail of Tears. Others were descendents of people who had fled to Indian Territory. Many blacks were also from the various Muskogee speaking peoples such as Creeks, Seminoles and the Yuchi. Some had been adopted by the tribe after the Emancipation Proclamation. They were thus able to live freely in Oklahoma Territory.

During the Oil boom of the 1910s the area of Northwest OK around Tulsa flourished. Greenwood became home to several prominent black businessmen and boasted a variety of thriving businesses that were very successful until the Tulsa Race Rot. Not only did black Americans want to contribute to the success of black enterprise but there were racial segregation laws that prevented them from shopping anywhere other than Greenwood.

In northwestern OK, as elsewhere in America, the prosperity of minorities emerged amidst racial and political tension. Furthermore, it is estimated that in 1921 there were about 3,200 members of the KKK in Tulsa.

On the day of the riot, 35 square blocks of homes and businesses were torched by mobs of angry whites. The riot began because of an alleged assault of a white elevator operator, 17-yr-old Sarah Page, by an African American, 19-year-old Dick Rowland. Eventually the case against Rowland was dismissed.

But the story had been published and soon a mob had armed itself and invaded Greenwood.

Guns and ammunition was stolen from local stores and/or provided to the white mob by local law enforcement officers.

Whites flooded into the Greenwood district and destroyed the businesses and homes of the residents. African American were arrested and placed in detention camps where they remained for months

Over 600 businesses were lost, 10,000 citizens were homeless. Over 1,200 homes were destroyed. Also lost were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and 2 movie theaters, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, six private airplanes and a bus system.The content you are trying to access is only available to members. Sorry.

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