In Tulsa, Keeping Alive 1921's Painful Memory

Olivia Hooker, 90, right, and sister Naomi Chamberlain, 87, were young girls during the devastating riot in Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood.
Olivia Hooker, 90, right, and sister Naomi Chamberlain, 87, were young girls during the devastating riot in Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood. (Photos By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

She heard tapping on the roof of her home in Tulsa, and in her young mind Olivia Hooker thought it was hail from a Midwest storm. Her mother grabbed her hand, crept to a small window and explained, to the 6-year-old's horror, that it was actually raining bullets.

"Up on the hill was a machine gun with an American flag on it," Hooker, now 90, said in testimony at a recent hearing in the House before members of the Congressional Black Caucus. "My mother said, 'They are shooting at you.' "

It was Tuesday, May 31, 1921, and the worst race riot in U.S. history was underway. It is an event that hardly anyone commemorates on Memorial Day weekend, because its existence has been all but erased.

More than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in less than a week, and at least 300 people were killed, and then buried, possibly in unmarked mass graves, according to a 2001 report on the incident by an Oklahoma state commission.

The official death toll surpassed the totals of the 1965 Watts riot, the 1967 Detroit riot, the 1968 Washington riot and the 1992 Los Angeles riot combined. Some historians estimated that the toll reached 1,000, based on photos of trucks full of bodies as they rolled out of town, according to a member of the commission.

A quest for reparations by surviving victims ended two weeks ago. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed without comment a class-action suit against the city of Tulsa, its police department and the state of Oklahoma.

The rejection left in place a lower court's ruling that a two-year statute of limitations on claims had expired in 1923. According to law, the judges ruled, it mattered little that segregated courts in which Ku Klux Klan members held judgeships refused to hear claims of black victims immediately after the riot, or that evidence of its devastation was erased or hidden until the 2001 report.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, based in Denver, said that legal avenues had opened to black complainants over time, citing the 1960s as an era when claims could have been brought, or perhaps the 1980s.

"Why did they just pick that date?" asked Eddie Faye Gates, who sat on the commission. "Seems to me they were looking . . . for a loophole." Charles J. Ogletree, the Harvard law professor and civil rights lawyer who argued the case for victims, said the ruling "doesn't make sense."

Before the rulings, Larry V. Simmons, the Tulsa deputy city attorney who fought the case, told the Tulsa World newspaper that "this complaint should be disposed of as a matter of law." He was out of the office last week, according to an assistant, and could not be reached to comment.

Ogletree promised to try to bring the case before the House Judiciary Committee to keep the case in the public eye. "I think now we have even more compelling reason to not let this disappear," he said.

Tulsa's prosperous Greenwood community was the prairie's own small turn-of-the-century Harlem. It began to grow when slaves who had been owned by Seminoles, Cherokees and other Indian tribes populated the area. The Indians themselves had been forced to march from the South to the Plains by U.S. officials in what is known as the "Trail of Tears."

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