Page: 1 2“I had been in school for two years and I knew about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I thought it pertained to me until that day,â€ says Dr. Olivia Hooker as she recalled May 31, 1921, the day a white mob obliterated 42 square blocks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, formerly known as Greenwood — or as W.E.B Dubois dubbed it, “Black Wall Street.â€
At the age of six, Hooker recalls being terribly affected by losing everything, particularly, her favorite doll and doll clothes. “It took a long time for me to really get to the point where I could sleep well.â€
It took a lot longer for her family to recover financially. While their home was not burned to the ground like most others, her father and grandfather, Hank and Samuel Hooker, owners of one of the most prominent clothing stores in Greenwood, lost more than $100,000 in goods. The men in her family were placed in an internment camp and when they were finally allowed to return home, they found that whatever valuables that weren’t stolen had been destroyed.
Greenwood was plundered when a white mob, angry about the alleged molestation of a white girl by a black boy, descended upon the town’s black inhabitants overnight. When the sun rose on June 1, 1921, more than 300 black residents were dead or missing, and almost the entire community was burned to the ground. The 10,000 residents in the community were scattered across the country.
Hooker’s family moved to Topeka, Kansas, and the former professor, now 94, who remembers finding artillery shells in the dresser drawers, says she refused to attend school because she didn’t want anyone teaching her that didn’t look like her. “It was like having everything removed as if we had gone to another planet,â€ she says.
Decades later, Hooker, now a resident of Greenberg, New York, and two other survivors, Otis Clark, 105, of Seattle, Washington, and Wess Young, 92, of Tulsa, attended the screening of Before They Die!, a documentary detailing the accounts of several survivors and Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, who unsuccessfully petitioned the courts of Oklahoma and later the Supreme Court for reparations. Ogletree assembled a team of prominent attorneys that included Johnny Cochran and Adjoin A. Aiyetoro, a longtime activist and legal counsel for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.
After learning about Ogletree’s quest, his friend, Reginald Turner, the movie’s director and producer, felt compelled to document the survivors’ testimony.
“My law career has been put on hold, and I haven’t really worked becauseÂ I’ve been obsessed and committed to this process. But it has been a complete labor of love,â€ says Turner before the screening of Before They Die, which cost about $930,000 to make.
With the help of the Executive Leadership Council (ELC), a membership organization that represents the most senior African American corporate executives in Fortune 500 companies, Turner was able to raise $1 million and take the survivors around the country to tell their stories at screenings.
Within 72 hours after deciding to help put on a screening of the movie in New York, Westina Matthews Shatteen, a member of the ELC and managing director at Merrill Lynch, convinced American Express, JPMorgan Chase, the Bank of New York Mellon, the New York Stock Exchange, Deloitte & Touche, and Merrill Lynch to underwrite the screening at the Times Center earlier this week. The ELC is planning to finance several more screenings.
Turner also received help from his cousin, Denise Clement, who produced the film and interviewed 22 survivors from across the country, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois, New York, California, and Virginia. When the project started in 2003, there were 125 survivors were still living. Now there are about 65, she says.
“Our efforts with the film are to do what the government has not done, and that is to find a way to get reparations for them before they die,â€ Clement says. “The people in Rosewood, Florida, [an African American town where a massacre occurred in 1923], Japanese Americans who were in interned during World War II, victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, and families and victims of Sept.11 have all been compensated. The only people who have not been compensated were the survivors of Tulsa 1921.â€
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