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Last Witness: Surviving the Tulsa Race Riot

On May 31, 1921, Olivia Hooker was six-years-old when white mobs launched an attack on the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In less than 24 hours, the mobs destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses. It’s estimated as many as 300 people were killed. The Tulsa Race Riot is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history.

The ruins of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 1921. (Library of Congress)

For decades, the events of 1921 were rarely discussed or taught in school. But in 1971, Impact Magazine editor Don Ross published one of the first accounts of the race riots in nearly 50 years. He went on to become a state representative and, along with State Senator Maxine Horner, is credited with bringing national attention to the buried history. Olivia Hooker, now 103, is the last surviving witness to the events of that day.

Read our full story on the Tulsa Race Riot NPR’s Code Switch Blog.


“Fires had been started by the white invaders soon after 1 o’clock and other fires were set from time to time. By 8 o’clock practically the entire thirty blocks of homes in the negro quarters were in flames and few buildings escaped destruction. Negroes caught in their burning homes were in many instances shot down as they attempted to escape.”

— The New York Times, June 2, 1921


This story was produced by Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries along with Joe Richman, Sarah Kate Kramer, and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Radio Diaries receives generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Special thanks to the Tulsa Historical Society and the Greenwood Cultural Center. This story is the first in a new series we’re calling Last Witness, which features portraits of the last surviving witnesses to major historical events. Send us your ideas for the series by using the hashtag #LastWitness or email us at info@radiodiaries.org.

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