Dr. Olivia Hooker: Survivor, Then Historymaker

 
 

Olivia Hooker, a witness and survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre at only six years old and one of the first African-American women to join the U.S. Coast Guard in 1945, passed away last Wednesday, November 21, 2018 at 103 years old.

Dr. Olivia Hooker witnessed first-hand the horror and chaos that descended upon Tulsa, Oklahoma, particularly the wealthy black neighborhood of Greenwood north of the city. Greenwood was a hub of black commerce flourishing in the aftermath of the oil boom that was nicknamed “Black Wall Street.”

The riots began when 19-year-old Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white girl in an elevator. A group of black men—including veterans of World War I—attempted to assist white police officers in protecting Rowland but were rebuffed both by the officers and the increasingly angry and growing mob outside. After an altercation resulted in a gunfight outside of the courthouse later that night, the riot began.

Olivia Hooker referred to the 48 hours after May 31, 1921 as “The Catastrophe.” The terror they experienced during the race riot gave her nightmares.

“We could see what they were doing,” she told the Washington Post. “They took everything they thought was valuable. They smashed everything they couldn’t take. My mother had opera singer Enrico Caruso records she loved. They smashed the Caruso records.”

Hooker attempted to join the Navy with World War II on the horizon since they started to enlist women, but they told her there were complications with her enlistment that they never clarified, so she decided to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1945 instead. She joined ‘Semper Pratus’, or SPAR, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve.

She also joined the Tulsa Race Riot Commission— now the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission—in 1997. The commission issued an official report in 2001detailing city and state government involvement in the riot and the cover-up that followed.

In 2015, the Olivia J. Hooker Training Center in Washington, D.C. was dedicated to her by Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft. That same year, she was also honored by President Barack Obama during a Coast Guard ceremony in which he imparted her life story.

Dr. Hooker’s quote gracing the Training Center’s wall reminds us of the importance of humility in times where it seems hard to find.

“It’s not about you, or me, but it’s about what we can give to this world.”

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