On May 21, 1921, thousands of black families lost their homes and loved ones in Tulsa, OK when hundreds of mostly white residents burned buildings and killed dozens in a predominantly black neighborhood. UR alum Olivia Hooker was one of the last remaining survivors of the massacre, known as the Tulsa Race Riot. Only six years old at the time, she witnessed the white mobs hacking away at her sister’s piano, throwing out her mother’s records, and setting fire to the place.

In an interview, Hooker said one of the few items left untouched was the “old, rugged cross […] giving you a message of what you should and shouldn’t have.” When the riot started, Hooker’s mother refused to run, and continued cooking dinner and “putting water on the house” in attempts to prevent it from burning.

For Hooker, the Tulsa Riot was a rude awakening at an early age. She had not previously experienced such racism and aggression against Black people. “The only non-black people that I ever saw were people who wanted to sell my father things for his store, and they brought presents for the children and listened to my sister play the piano,” Hooker said. Until that fateful night, Hooker admitted she “thought everything in the Preamble to the Constitution referred to [her].”

Instead of calling the violence a riot, Hooker referred to it as “planned desecration.” This singular moment in Hooker’s youth would shape the rest of her life’s work: fighting for the civil rights of African Americans, and justice for the victims of the Tulsa Riot until her death in 2018.

One of the many rights she fought for was universal access to the military. Prior to World War II, the military did not allow women, and even when President Roosevelt signed in a special women’s reserve in 1942, African Americans were still barred from entry.

When the Navy finally allowed women of color in 1944, Hooker was saddened to see no one signing up. In an interview with the Hudson River Museum, she admitted that she had not wanted a life of active duty, but applied to the Navy hoping to encourage others to follow suit. However, her initial applications were rejected. When the Navy did finally accept her, she switched to the Coast Guard.

During her time with the Coast Guard, a colonel from Kentucky came and attempted to segregate the barracks. To his dismay, none of the girls were willing to part with their roommates. In fact, when asked about complaints, the only criticism Hooker’s roommate could think of was “she likes Robert Frost poetry and I don’t.”

After serving in the Coast Guard, Hooker went on to receive her master’s degree from Columbia and Ph.D. from UR in psychology. In a 2005-06 Rochester Review article, Hooker, the only African American woman in her class, said “I wasn’t a typical student.”. During her time at UR, she dedicated her studies to children with Down syndrome, focusing on their learning and developmental disabilities. She was among 22 women affiliated with the UR community included in the University’s website dedicated to Susan B. Anthony’s 200th birthday and the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

After leaving Rochester in 1962, Hooker went on to teach psychology at Fordham University until her retirement in 1985. She continued working as a psychologist at the Fred Keller School until she turned 87 in 2002.

Even after retirement, Hooker continuously worked to obtain justice for the Tulsa Riot victims. In 2005, after the Supreme Court denied a hearing, she testified before the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill to appeal her case for restitution. Even back in Tulsa, Hooker said “it took 80 years before we got an apology from the mayor of Tulsa […] of course we got no monetary reimbursement, but at least we got an apology after 80 years.”

Despite the lack of progress, Hooker remained hopeful even toward the end of her life. In an interview with Fordham University, she discussed her thoughts on redemption. Smiling, Hooker said, “St. Francis was a terrible boy and […] did everything wrong to his family. If St. Francis could become St. Francis after all the things he did as a boy, I have faith that other people can change.”



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