By Jueseppi B.
Twenty-Third in the “One A Day” Black History Month Series…..Dr. Olivia Hooker.
Once again I am getting an education in Black History, today I introduce you to Dr. Olivia Hooker:
Olivia Hooker was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1915. She moved with her family to Tulsa, Oklahoma a few years later. Her parents had moved to Oklahoma from Holmes County, Mississippi. Her father, Samuel D. was a businessman, who operated a clothing store in the Greenwood District and her mother, Anita J. Stigger Hooker, was a former teacher.
Dr. Hooker was a child of six when the Tulsa Race Riot occurred. She recalls being awakened by the sounds of thudding noises outside her house on the morning of June 1st. One of her most poignant memories is of her mother carefully leading her to the window and pointing to the hill, where a machine gunner was stationed. Her mother then said, “That is a machine gun on that hill, and there’s an American flag on it. That means that your country is shooting at you.”
Dr. Olivia Hooker, a psychologist and former college professor at Fordham University who resides in Greenburgh, New York, became the first black woman to enlist in the United States Coast Guard during World War II, is also a survivor of the Tulsa Riot of 1921. Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins introduced a resolution in recognition of Dr. Hooker’s outstanding achievements and contributions to the advancement of women and civil rights.
The tragic events of the week of May 31, 1921, later known as the Tulsa race riots, resulted in the deaths of more than three hundred people – some buried in mass graves, and the burning of more than one thousand black homes and businesses. Although one of the bloodiest altercations in the history of U.S. race relations – the death toll surpassed the totals of the Watts riot, the Detroit riot, the Washington riot and the Los Angeles riot combined – these events have largely been omitted from most accounts of history. But, Dr. Hooker continues to recount her experience, educating our communities and serving as a role model for future civil rights activists.
In February 1945, Olivia Hooker was sworn in by a Coast Guard officer, becoming the first African-American female admitted into the United States Coast Guard. Hooker joined the service to become a SPAR (Semper Paratus Always Ready), the acronym used for female service personnel during World War II. During World War II, Hooker tried to join the WAVES, of the United States Navy but was rejected due to her ethnicity.
She applied to the Coast Guard, where she was received cordially, and completed her basic training in March of 1945. She attended yeoman school for the next nine weeks and spent the rest of her service time in Boston. She remained in the Coast Guard until the war-time SPARs were disbanded by mid-1946.
In 1997, Dr. Hooker and other survivors helped found the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which drafted recommendations for restitution, took their case to the Oklahoma State Legislature and to Capitol Hill where she and others testified before the United States Congress and initiated a federal lawsuit which was argued by Harvard law professor and civil rights lawyer Charles J. Ogletree, and became the subject of a recent documentary, “Before They Die.”
After graduating from Ohio State University, Dr. Hooker went on to become the first black woman to serve in the United States Coast Guard. Following her time in the military, she earned a Master’s Degree in psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University and a Doctorate in psychology from the University of Rochester. After a long and accomplished career as a Fordham University professor, she worked as a psychologist at the Fred Keller School in Yonkers until 2002.
Though she experienced discrimination, she never returned the unkindness while working as a psychologist at Bedford Correctional Facility for Women.
“I treated them [the prisoners] as if they were visitors in my living room,” said Hooker. “No matter what they had done, I never brought it up in any way or degraded them. They appreciated that, they were in my corner all the time.”
In addition to her volunteering with the local NAACP chapter, she volunteered at Westchester Medical Center during the 1980s at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While many people at the time were afraid to be in a room with an HIV positive child, she would visit with the children even on days she wasn’t supposed to be volunteering. She couldn’t fathom how some mothers refused to see their dying children for fear that they would contract the virus.
Regardless of the things Hooker has seen in life, she never lost faith in humanity and its potential.
“I still believe there is good in everyone,” said Hooker. “Maybe they’ve done a heinous crime, but somewhere there is good that can be brought out. That’s what we have to learn, how to deal with people who have no impulse control. I think we could have a peaceful world, if we put the preservation of life at the top of our priorities. And we can do that, it would be a much better world to live in.”
Next in The “One A Day” Black History Month Series…..Ms. Wilma Glodean Rudolph