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100 Years Later, A Survivor's Story Of The Tulsa Race Massacre

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On May 31, 1921, almost exactly 100 years ago, a group of white residents launched an attack on a thriving Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla. Beginning that evening and continuing into the following day, white mobs stormed into Black homes and schools and businesses. The Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. Today we revisit a story from Radio Diaries, the story of a witness to that day. She was 6 years old at the time of the massacre.

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OLIVIA HOOKER: My name is Olivia J. Hooker.

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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 the 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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CHANG: In the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, more than a thousand homes and businesses were destroyed, and it's 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, and she helped form the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in 1997. She died in 2018, just six months after this story originally aired. She was 103 years old.

Last week, three more survivors testified before a congressional subcommittee that's considering reparations for survivors of the massacre and their descendants. This story was produced by Nellie Gilles, with help from Sarah Kate Kramer and Joe Richman. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. You can hear an extended version on the Radio Diaries podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.