Dr. Olivia J. Hooker is the kind of person who’ll credit everyone else for her lifetime of achievements before she credits herself.
And her list of accomplishments is seemingly endless. She has two Coast Guard buildings named after her for being the first black woman to enlist. She advanced psychology for people with disabilities as one of the few black women in the field. She took the fight for reparations for fellow survivors of the Tulsa race riot in Oklahoma to Capitol Hill. She’s been called “fearless” and “an inspiration” by President Obama.
But rather than give herself any sort of credit this, Hooker has her doctors to thank, her roommates in basic training, the teachers who helped her along the way — and her mom.
“She was the person that wanted to see you doing something that was a higher aim,” Hooker says. “We knew as children, don’t let mama catch you idle. You better have a book in your hand, a pen to write.”
Because of this, Hooker has spent the majority of her 103 years learning, teaching, and living out the belief that if you want to see change in the world, you better do it yourself. She’s dedicated her life to serving others with a humility and generosity of spirit that seems, in 2018, almost of a bygone era — an era that she saw and survived firsthand.
When she was 6 years old, Hooker’s family — mother, father, three sisters, and one brother — was attacked in the 1921 Tulsa race riot. The “catastrophe,” as Hooker calls it, began when a black man named Dick Rowland came in contact with a white woman named Sarah Page in an elevator. It’s likely that he tripped and grabbed her as he fell, but the truth didn’t matter. Rowland was arrested, the story escalated, and the city’s white residents, emboldened by the Tulsa police, terrorized Greenwood. They burned homes and businesses, including Hooker’s father’s clothing store, and killed roughly 300 residents. Greenwood, known as “Black Wall Street” for its collection of black businesses and wealth, was decimated.
“It was devastating,” Hooker says, “I did not know about people discriminating because of color. I didn’t know that there were people who hated other people for no reason. It was a distinct shock.”
Hooker’s family survived and moved to Topeka, Kansas. They lived near a brick factory, where the sounds of dynamite blowing up the earth for clay reignited Hooker’s memories of the massacre. She says it was years before she could sleep without screaming or having nightmares.
In spite of — or perhaps because of — what she witnessed in Tulsa, Hooker decided to devote herself to making the world a better place. She studied psychology and education at Ohio State University and taught third grade until it was announced that the Navy would allow black women to serve. Hooker had fought for this right along with her sisters in the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, but after a while, she noticed no one seemed to be signing up.
“I thought, if you have fought for a right, as we had campaigned for the Navy to take in black women, then somebody ought to take advantage of it,” Hooker says. “So I thought, alright, if nobody else comes up, I’ll try.”
Hooker tried to enlist and was rejected twice due to an unexplained “complication.” Her third letter, she says, was answered by Navy secretary James Forrestal, who told her she could start at the bottom and work her way up. She claims her sister’s boss at the Government Accountability Office then told her to try the Coast Guard — where she would be one step removed from those in the Navy who viewed her as a “complication.”
“The Coast Guard recruiter was very welcoming,” she says. “She really wanted to be able to do something for her country by integrating.” Hooker knew nothing about the military: She showed up for basic training with her steamer trunk alongside seven white women and their duffel bags. Nevertheless, she would become the first black woman on active duty.
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