Real Talk | Dr. Olivia Hooker, the 1921 Tulsa pogrom and reparations

Real Talk | Dr. Olivia Hooker, the 1921 Tulsa pogrom and reparations

Dr. Olivia J. Hooker, the 103-year-old last known survivor of the 1921 Tulsa "Race Riot" (May 31 through June 1) died recently. Hooker was, in the words of Maya Angelou, "a phenomenal woman."

At age 6, she survived what many scholars consider the country's deadliest racial conflagration. In 1945, she became the first active-duty African-American woman in the U.S. Coast Guard. She earned a master's degree two years later and a Ph.D. in 1961, both in psychology.

Hooker dedicated her life to working for racial justice. She was a longtime NAACP activist. And Hooker spent her last decades fighting for reparations for the survivors and descendants of the Tulsa massacre. Commemorating her life offers an opportunity to re-examine what she called "the terrible catastrophe" and the case for reparations.

Hooker's recollections provide tremendous insight into the mentality of white supremacists. She observed the mob took what they thought was valuable and what their victims loved and destroyed what they couldn't take.

Haunted by memories of that terrible night, Hooker suffered from nightmares for years. Two incidents impressed upon her 6-year-old mind lingered. She recounted how upon breaking into her home, the mob "took an ax to the family piano." The other memory seared into her consciousness concerned a black doll and "some beautiful clothes" her grandmother had made for it. It was Hooker's first African-American doll. To her horror, she recalled, the marauders "set fire to my doll's clothes."

Popularly known as "Black Wall Street," Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood was the wealthiest African-American community of its time. It was home to 10,000 black people who owned 600 businesses and hundreds of thriving social institutions.

Formerly called "Little Africa," the Greenwood community housed a hospital, a bank, a bus system, libraries, two newspapers, 30 grocery stores, 21 restaurants, a score of churches, four movie theaters and several schools. Black-owned real estate and personal property valued at $31 million in 2018 dollars disappeared in flames overnight.

The official record cites 37 dead (25 black and six white). However, the NAACP's Walter White, who appraised Tulsa in the massacre's aftermath, estimated 50 dead white men and between 150 and 200 black folks, men and women.

Led by the military veterans who composed the radical African Blood Brotherhood post, black Tulsans heroically fought back. But, the ABB and other defenders of Greenwood were eventually overwhelmed by the sheer size of the mob — 25,000 maddened marauders, Tulsa's police force and the Oklahoma National Guard.

Police officers often led the assault. During the pogrom, cars "bristling with guns" fired indiscriminately as they sped throughout the African-American community. Tulsa's police force dispatched more than a dozen crop duster planes from which officers and others dropped "sticks of dynamite" and "burning balls of turpentine." They burned more than 1,200 residences, turning 10,000 blacks into homeless refugees. After the massacre ended, the police arrested 6,000 African-Americans. Most were held illegally in detention camps. The entire Greenwood community comprising 35 blocks and more than a square mile was demolished.

Within a generation, black Tulsans rebuilt much of Greenwood. However, they remained haunted by the hurt and horror of the massacre. After decades of struggle, they succeeded in getting a state commission appointed.

In 1997, the Oklahoma Legislature charged an 11-member commission with producing an accurate historical account of the "1921 Tulsa Race Riot" and providing recommendations. Three and half years later, in February 2001, the commission issued its findings and recommended "restitution to the historic Greenwood Community, in real and tangible form." They proposed:

— Direct payments of reparations to the survivors;

— Direct payments of reparations to the descendants of survivors;

— A scholarship fund for students affected by the race riot;

— Creation of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic Greenwood neighborhood;

— A memorial for the reburial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves.

Gov. Francis Keating signed the commission's recommendations into law, albeit replacing reparation payments with an apology. Ultimately, the only recommendation the state and the city acted on was the creation of a memorial that became the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation in the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park.

In response, survivors and descendants sued the state. In March 2003, U.S. District Judge James O. Ellison dismissed the suit. He ruled the suit was too late; the state's two-year limit on civil rights suits began ticking shortly after the 1921 massacre. In 2005, the SCOTUS dismissed the suit without even a comment.

U.S. law is often on the wrong side of justice.

Justice, reparations, will not come through the courts. It will come through political struggle, in Congress and state legislatures, and in the streets.

Former Congressman John Conyers twice introduced a bill, the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act, to extend the statute of limitations. In the wake of the death of Olivia J. Hooker, the last survivor of the Tulsa Massacre, will the Democrats find the moral courage to pick up Conyers' mantle and pass both the Accountability Act and HR 40, the bill to study the issue of African-American reparations?

If not, there should be consequences.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.

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