Suffolk native honors riot survivor

Published 5:52 pm Saturday, October 29, 2016

One of the last survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot recently received a painting done by Suffolk native and artist Timothy Giles.

Dr. Olivia Hooker, now 101 years old and living in New York, received the painting last weekend when Giles and his family drove to her home and presented it to her.

“I was absolutely amazed,” said Hooker. She had seen a photo of the painting online but said it did not compare to real life.

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“Every time I look at it, I see something different,” she said. “I’m by no means an art connoisseur, but I am absolutely delighted to have it.”

Hooker was 6 years old in 1921. Her father owned a department store in Tulsa. She remembers the attack like it was yesterday.

Most accounts of the massacre say it started on Memorial Day that year, when a young black man was accused of raping a young white woman, who was operating an elevator in which he was riding.

“The riot was actually brewing anyway,” said Giles, who has read much about the event and came across Hooker’s name during his research. “The population was waiting for something to explode.”

By the time it was over the next day, more than 35 blocks of “Black Wall Street,” a section of the town that housed many affluent blacks and the businesses they owned, had been burned to the ground. Counts of the dead vary by source, from the 30s to some 300.

“Nobody had told me about prejudice and race and so forth,” Hooker said by phone last week. “It was astonishing to me, because I had been in school for two years. (Our teacher) taught us all the beautiful things in the American repertoire, and we didn’t know when they talked about liberty and justice for all, we didn’t know they weren’t talking about us.”

Hooker recalled asking her mother during the riots why the sun was shining and yet there was hail hitting the house.

“She said, ‘Come with me. I’ll show you. It’s not hail,’” Hooker said. “She let me peek through the Venetian blinds.”

Hooker had nightmares about the riots as a child, and her mother worried whether she would ever be able to sleep through the night, she said.

“I really sympathize with children who have lived through something like that, because I know how hard it is to just put it out of your mind and sleep peacefully through the night. It’s really revealing, and it makes you sympathize even more with the poor children who are going through all these conflicts now.”

Hooker went on to earn her doctorate in clinical psychology and worked in many different cultures.

“It did open my eyes,” she said.

Giles said he was inspired to do the painting for Hooker after he read about her during his research.

“This woman’s incredible,” he said. “It’s even more incredible to meet her. She still has a great big smile on her face.”

Giles, who grew up in South Suffolk and Lake Kennedy and graduated in 1979 from John F. Kennedy High School, said the watercolor painting took him between four and five months to finish.

He said he enjoyed getting to know Hooker and learning about her insight on today’s race relations.

“I wanted to know both sides of the coin,” he said. “Those of us who don’t know the history, we will repeat our history, and that’s what it seems like is happening today.”