Civil rights fighter, Tulsa Race Riot survivor turns 102
Olivia Hooker, a Tulsa Race Riot survivor who turned 102 years old on Sunday, is pictured at her home in Greenburgh, New York, on Feb. 6. RICKY FLORES/The Journal News (Westchester County, N.Y.)
GREENBURGH, N.Y. — When you’re Olivia Hooker, it’s OK to talk about age, especially as she’s achieved so much and still has an engaging smile and strong mind.
Hooker turned 102 years old on Sunday — sharing a birthday with President Abraham Lincoln and an incredible history of being a great American patriot.
Hooker was born in 1915 in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Today, she talks about not having the hand strength she used to for playing piano concertos and no longer being able to live independently. Yet this centenarian has had a front seat to some of America’s most challenging moments, fighting racial injustice and becoming a female trailblazer.
“It’s astonishing because you meet challenges that you never expected,” Hooker said.
Among her many honors, the longtime Greenburgh resident is featured in a new book “Aging Gracefully” by Karsten Thormaehlen.
It profiles 52 people all over the world who are 100 years old and older.
“I remember that I had the best time talking to her and photographing her,” says Thormaehlen. “You can tell from her smile. I was quite nervous meeting Olivia, who’s a national hero and a living American legend.”
At just 6 years old, Hooker lived through the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot — which she calls a massacre. White rioters destroyed 35 city blocks of the prosperous Greenwood district, known as Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, over a 24-hour period.
The seminal race riot resulted in an estimated 300 deaths, injuries of more than 800 people and displaced over 10,000 black people from their homes.
Ku Klux Klan members destroyed Hooker’s family home.
“They were furious when they came in our home and my mother was cooking and not running away,” she says. “They took the food and dumped it in the mud and then they came back and took her nice flaky biscuits out of the oven and dumped them out on the dirt.
“We were hiding under the table where she put us, and we could see all this; well, it didn’t astonish my older sister and brother because they knew about things.”
She remembers the sky bright with hailing bullets.
“They deputized the marauders — they were terrible people — so they could do anything they wanted to do,” Hooker said. “They took all the men that would have protected us and put them in an internment camp. So there was only women and children, and they (the rioters) became even more vicious then.”
She was one of the survivors who filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuit in 2003 seeking reparations for one of the most horrific riots in U.S. history.
“It was 80 years before they finally came out with a report from the Assembly of Oklahoma that showed we were the victims and not the perpetrators,” Hooker says. “For years they had even denied they used airplanes, but all of us experienced it and saw the airplanes.” The rioters borrowed planes used for dust-cropping to shoot at the residents from above.
Hooker says she was affected the hardest by racism because she was a patriotic American and her family didn’t teach her about prejudice.
“I was one of those starry-eyed children who went to a school that impressed us with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and I believed all this; I didn’t know it didn’t pertain to me. I was absolutely astonished.”
The family moved to Topeka, Kansas, after the riots.
She credits her parents for instilling in the family of five children the importance of looking forward, staying positive and service.
“My mother would never join anything for social reasons. You have to have an aim to do something for somebody if you want me to become a member and pay dues,” she says. “It was a good example for us; it kept us oriented toward trying to help other human beings.”
In 1945, she became the first African-American woman to join the U.S. Coast Guard women’s reserve called SPAR.
“It was a fascinating experience for me because I had not known people from different ethnic backgrounds, so I learned a lot about people from other cultures,” she says.
Hooker earned a master’s degree in psychological services in 1947 from Columbia University, where she was one of just two black female students. In 1961, she earned her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Rochester and worked with women with disabilities.
She’s been celebrated by presidents including Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And there’s a book, “Tulsa Girl” by Shameen Anthanio-Williams, about Hooker’s Oklahoma experience.
She’s direct about history and the advice she’d give young people.
“I think they need to know you have to watch your back — and as they say, trust few. And always check the veracity of what people tell you because there are people who will not tell you the straight truth.”
Birthday plans will be mellow this year after a big celebration in 2016, partly because she doesn’t want loved ones to go through too much trouble, and also because she is concerned by recent politics and the direction of the nation.
“I thought it was good for the women to have a march and keep on marching,” she said, “and if I could I would join them and let them know we don’t have to accept this with pleasure and we have to keep our country strong.”
Her secret to longevity?
“I think I’ve been lucky and blessed. I didn’t drink and I didn’t smoke, and I think they are good things to avoid. And I tried to get the right amount of sleep to keep your mind positive,” says Hooker.
And her accomplishments?
“You get strength from within from believing you can do something, and sometimes you get a real surprise.”