Dr. Olivia Hooker, first Black woman in the Coast Guard, eyewitness to Tulsa Massacre

Herb Boyd | 6/25/2020, midnight
Trump’s disaster in Tulsa presents us an opportunity to discuss the city’s race riot of 1921 when countless number of ...
Dr. Olivia Hooker

Trump’s disaster in Tulsa presents us an opportunity to discuss the city’s race riot of 1921 when countless number of African Americans were killed and the Greenwood District, or “Black Wall Street,” was destroyed. Last week we featured the life and legacy of the Rev. Jack Yates, especially the high school named after him which George Floyd attended. The Rev. Yates, as we noted, was among the foremost leaders promoting Juneteenth Day, and the convergence of that celebration with Trump’s appearance in Tulsa, and the massacre there, evokes the memory of Dr. Olivia Hooker.

Dr. Hooker was in her eighties when she began to seriously research and to ensure the legacy of the massacre, one she witnessed. If most Americans are ignorant of Juneteenth, they are even less aware of the death and destruction that took place in Tulsa in 1921.

Born February 12, 1915 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Hooker grew up in Tulsa where her father owned a clothing store in the prosperous Greenwood district, which is a little less than a mile from the Bok Center where Trump held his rally. She was six years old when a white mob was formed to avenge an alleged assault on a white woman in an elevator by a Black man. Hooker said she hid under a dining room table with her four siblings when members of the mob invaded their home and destroyed practically everything of value.

The Hooker’s store was just one of the buildings and property leveled during the riot, leaving Greenwood like a bomb had been dropped on it, and in several accounts an actual gasoline bomb was dropped that led to an inferno of flames.

Having survived the massacre, the Hooker family moved to Columbus, Ohio. While a student at Ohio State University, Olivia was among activists who campaigned for Black women to have the same opportunities given to white women in the military. Her application to join the Navy was rejected several times. Eventually, a Coast Guard recruiter convinced her to join SPAR, a women’s reserve program of the Coast Guard.

For a little over a year in 1945 to 1946 she was a member of SPAR before it was disbanded. Her assignment was mainly a lot of paperwork, she said, but, “It taught me a lot about order and priorities,” she told a Coast Guard publication. In this capacity, she was the first African American woman to actively serve in the Coast Guard.

Armed with GI benefits, Olivia enrolled at Teachers College, Columbia University where she earned a master’s degree in psychological services. This was followed by a brief stint working with female prisoners with developmental disabilities. Her interest in mental health led her to the University of Rochester and under the guidance of Emory Cohen she earned a Ph.D. in Primary Mental Health with a special emphasis on children with Down syndrome.

Dr. Hooker taught at Fordham University from 1963 to 1985, and she was lauded for her dedication to students of color. “Following her ‘retirement,’ she was working harder than ever to ensure the field of psychology and federal, state, and local agencies were inclusive and working toward the benefit of all peoples,” Celia Fisher, the Marie Ward Doty University chair in Ethics at Fordham, told Fordham News in 2018.