New Series: Last Witness

Audio portraits of history’s last surviving witnesses

For many years I’ve kept a folder by my desk labeled: “Too Late Stories.” It’s full of newspaper clippings and obituaries about people I would have loved to interview, but I was too late.

People like Mark Matthews, the last of the legendary Buffalo Soldiers. They were African-American soldiers who fought in the Indian wars of the late 1800’s. Matthews died in 2005 at the age of 111.

Another clipping is about Joe Malta. He was the U.S. military’s hangman, responsible for executing Hitler’s cabinet in the Nuremberg trials. I interviewed him a few years before he died. When I arrived he showed me the actual rope noose from the trial that he still had. But sadly, he no longer had his memory.

And then there’s Suzanne Blackmar, the ‘little old lady’ who famously refused to abandon her rent-controlled Manhattan apartment in the 1980’s when a real estate tycoon named Donald Trump tried to evict her so he could raise the rent. She won the case.

All of these would have been great radio stories. Instead they made great obituaries.

I love obituaries. They introduce us to people we never got to meet. They turn lives into narratives. But wouldn’t it be better to learn about these people while they’re still around?

That’s the idea behind our brand new series: Last Witness. We’re uncovering the stories of the last surviving witnesses to major historic events.

Our first episode of Last Witness is the story of 103-year-old Olivia J. Hooker. She’s believed to be the last surviving witness to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Today, she lives in a small house, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood outside White Plains, NY. Her voice alone is worth a listen.

In this episode we also tell the stories of Daisy Anderson and Alberta Martin, who were in their 90’s when I interviewed them years ago. Both had grown up poor, children of sharecroppers in the South. Daisy in Tennessee; Alberta in Alabama. Both women got married in their early 20’s, to husbands who were near 80. And both those husbands had served in the Civil War. Except, on opposite sides.

Daisy Anderson was black, her husband was a slave who escaped and joined the Union Army. Alberta Martin was white, her husband fought on the Confederate side. Daisy and Alberta were not alive during the Civil War. But they married into history.

(Left to Right) Olivia Hooker, age 6; Alberta Martin; Daisy Anderson

We’ve also shared the story of Russell Gackenbach, who flew on the mission to bomb Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. He was second lieutenant and a navigator aboard the B-29 bomber Necessary Evil. His plane was flying at 30,000 feet over the city when the bomb was dropped from the Enola Gay.

Another Last Witness episode is the story of Adella Wotherspoon. She was 6 months old when she survived the sinking of the General Slocum, a steamship that caught fire and sank in the waters off Manhattan in 1904. It was the most fatal disaster in New York City history up until 9/11. Adella was 100 years old when I interviewed her and she died a few months later. She was the last survivor of the General Slocum.

In this episode we also present an audio portrait of Frank Schubert, the last civilian lighthouse keeper in the U.S.

Over the next year, Last Witness stories will be airing on NPR’s All Things Considered and the Radio Diaries Podcast. We’ll also be posting the stories here, so stay tuned.

“There is no history, there are only many histories.” 
- Karl Popper, Philosopher

Thanks for listening.

Joe Richman, Founder and Executive Producer of Radio Diaries

p.s. If you know someone who’d make a good Last Witness, share it on Facebook or Twitter and use the hashtag #LastWitness or email us at info@radiodiaries.org. Thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities for supporting this series.