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.

After her tenure at Fordham ended, Hooker spent a decade at the Fred Keller School of Behavioral Analysis. Here she continued her work on developmental disabilities in children. In 2002, at 87, she “retired” once more.

Three years later she began a more serious inquiry in the Tulsa massacre, going against her parents’ admonitions about agonizing over the past. Soon, she was a foremost spokesperson on the Tulsa riot and helped to form the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in the late 1990s. When the late attorney Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogletree sought a way to ground their pursuit of reparations for Black Americans, they secured Dr. Hooker, thereby giving them a living witness to the tragedy.

Still full of vigor and insight, even in her 90s, Dr. Hooker was often called on to recount the massacre, and there was even an appearance to testify before a congressional subcommittee in 2007. Eight years later, in 2015, the Coast Guard named a dining center and a training facility in her honor. One of her dreams was achieved in 2018 when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was renamed Tulsa Race Massacre Commission.

She was 103 when she died in White Plains, New York in 2018.

Here are portions of Dr. Hooker’s prepared statement at the congressional subcommittee in 2007:

“At the time of the riot, I lived on Independence Street in the Greenwood District of Tulsa with my parents and four siblings. At the time of the riot, my parents owned a home on Independence Street valued at $10,000 and a clothing store at 123 North Greenwood Avenue that was one of the most prominent stores in Greenwood. My home was severely damaged but not destroyed in the riot, however, the mob completely destroyed my parents’ business, which was described as ‘a total loss.’ Furnishings valued at $3000 were either stolen or deliberately smashed or destroyed. Jewelry valued at $1000, furs valued at $1000, and silver valued at $500 were also stolen. The estimated total loss of goods displayed at the store was $100,000. That makes a total loss of $104,000 to our parents during that riot. My parents were distraught over the loss of the many beautiful things they had purchased with their hard-earned money. The mobs hacked up our furniture with axes and set fire to my grandmother’s bed and sewing machine. I still remember the sound of gunfire raining down on my home and that the mob burned all my doll’s clothes.”