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87th Anniversary Commemoration 1921 Tulsa Race

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By Lea Michele Cash

Recently, I flew to Tulsa, Oklahoma to be involved in the 87th Anniversary Commemoration 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.  I had visited Tulsa in April, and again in May.  I arrived with hope and excitement towards finally meeting the prestigious Harvard lawyer, Dr. Charles J. Ogletree Jr.  Ogletree was the legal counsel for Anita Hill, 1991 Senate confirmation hearings and NBC's legal commentator during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He recently was named by the National Law Journal to be one of "The 50 Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America".  Ogletree, headed the Litigation Team of reparations for the 1921 Race Riot survivors and their descendants. He is also the co-chair of the Reparations Coordinating Committee (RCC).

I stayed at the home of appointed Race Riot Commissioner, historian, Eddie Faye Gates, a retired educator, a mighty warrior who has championed the cause of never letting go the holocaustic tragedy that occurred to Black Tulsans on the fatal evening of May 31, 1921. 

History now records due to much of her efforts, that on this day, the City of Tulsa received a large black eye.  One that has not healed, because of the winds of hatred and Jim Crow Laws fueled by Ku Klux Klansmen, desiring to lynch a young Black man, arrested for assaulting a white woman in an elevator and becoming the worse race riot in America.   

Dr. Charles J. Ogletree (Harvard law professor and civil rights attorney) and Eddie Faye Gates (Historian and Commissioner)
For sixteen hours, thirty-five city blocks burned to the ground by angry White mobs, completely devastating more than a thousand Black families, leaving them homeless and displaced.  The Black men were round up and place in camps, others they shot dead in the street, or in their homes.  Many of Tulsa's children never saw their fathers again.  A group of prominent brave Black men were indicted for starting the riot. My grandfather Jack R. Scott was one of them. Recently, 86 years later, their names were cleared and District Attorney Tim Harris and District Court, Judge Jesse Harris dismissed all charges.

On May 31, 2008, we traveled from all parts of the country to honor those personally affected by the riot and to view the screening of the documentary "Before They Die!" soon to be release to the world.  The documentary is about the race riot survivor's odyssey through the Federal courts to the Supreme Court and on to the US Congress, in their search for moral justice.  

The special activities were held on the campus of Oklahoma State University, Tulsa Campus (OSU).  OSU is a university that elegantly spreads, over the property and land once owned by Blacks who lived in Tulsa's segregated Greenwood area, better known as "Black Wall Street."  To kick off the 87th anniversary a morning march was scheduled from the university to the Greenwood Cultural Center.   However, heavy rains and a thunderstorm did not allow us to march.  By noon, the sky was blue and the sun was out, as if the thunderstorm had never occurred.  Many arrived for the Town Hall Meeting: The Litigation from the Beginning.

This is when I met the survivors, Dr. Olivia Hooker, Otis Clark, and Wes Young.  I met Dr. Ogletree, Suzette Malveaux, Co-Counselor; Michele Roberts, Co-Counselor;, Eric Miller, Co-Counselor; Reggie Turner, producer; J. Denise Clement, MD and Don Ross, former State Representative.  Oh, what a joy it was to be there representing my grandparents and their courageous efforts.  

A memorable occasion for me was to spend time listening to Dr. Olivia Hooker, 93 and Otis Clark, 105, both very precious, beautiful and quite humbly extraordinary.  Dr. Hooks now lives in New York. She was born on February 12, 1915.  She was six years old in 1921, and lived with her parents and four siblings on Independence Street in the Greenwood segregated district.  She witnessed the White mob hacked up their furniture with axes and set fire to her grandmother's bed and sewing machine. She said, "I still remember the sound of gunfire raining down on my home and that mob burned all my doll's clothing. After the riot, my mother saved   all the artillery shells that mobsters had put in all of our dresser drawers." 

Dr. Hooker's parents moved their family to another state. They filed insurance claims for their very prominent clothing store, destroyed property, but the case was thrown out of court in 1926.

Dr. Olivia J. Hooker, 93 year-old race riot survivor.
Dr. Hooker went on to make history, by becoming the first African American to enlist in the Coast Guard Women's Reserve (SPAR). In 1945, she was encouraged to apply for admission to the Coast Guard by her good friend, Alex Haley who then served as a ship cook aboard the CGC Mendota.  Hooker has received many honors and accolades for this historic honor. She has taught Graduate school at Fordham University, retiring as Associate Professor in 1985.

Now, Otis G. Clark, well, he won me over at hello. He was born on February 13, 1903. On the evening of the riot, he fled for his life.  He hoboed on a train, heading to California. He thought, if he went to California that he might be able to find his biological father.

Today, with many extraordinary stories about his life in Hollywood, and the church he helped to start, he travels around the country as the oldest traveling evangelist in the country.

The most memorable event for me was on Sunday, June 1st.    Those of us who had come from far and near stood with the survivors at the Oak Lawn Cemetery, the site of an alleged mass grave.  We held a small ceremony to honor the victims of the riot who were never properly buried.  It was very sad, as we hugged and sang a host of Black spirituals. It was a moving, uplifting and a powerful few moments. Most cried. I tried not to.  Nevertheless, by the time they started the first few verses of "This Little Light of Mine", my favorite song, down came my tears.  The history of what occurred so long ago raced through my head and heart, and all I had learned from my visit. One female descendant wept profusely and a young boy fainted. Dr. Clement rushed to give him medical attention, and hugs and comfort was given gently to the other descendant.    

Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about, unjust and just laws regarding Blacks and Jim Crow Laws. The morally right thing to do by the State of Oklahoma and our nation has not been done, for the injustices suffered after the riot when insurance companies refused to pay the race victims, and Black men were falsely accused for starting the riot. A quest for reparations by surviving victims was shattered in 2005, when the US Supreme Court dismissed without comment a class-action suit against the City of Tulsa, its police department and the State of Oklahoma. Why? 

Because of a lower court's ruling that a two-year-old statute of limitations on claims had expired in 1923.  It mattered little the Tulsa segregated courts in which Ku Klux Klan member ruled and held judgeships and bias, refusing to hear and throwing out Black claims by race riot victims. My grandfather's claim was $48,980.50.

The small group of faithful warriors vowed in the final song, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Roun".  They are going to keep reflecting on this tragic riot, telling the story, and facing with unwavering strength, the various legal challenges that have ensued until justice is served like the State of Florida has done with the victims of the Rosewood Race Riot.

My aunt, Juanita Maxine Scott Perry, was a documented race riot survivor and mentioned in several books.  She was born June 21, 1919 and died last year. Many of the race riot survivors are dying off never to receive their justice from a country they have loved.  Don Ross said, "Their survival, pride, and courage is Greenwood's last stand. It's as symbolic as the Alamo is to American history. They may have been overpowered and imprisoned in concentration camps, but they never surrendered their hearts, minds and tenacious resilience. One day they will get their justice."

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