Victory of Greenwood: Dr. Olivia Hooker

by Carlos Moreno

In September 2018, the nonprofit organization StoryCorps recorded Dr. Olivia Hooker’s recollections about being the first Black woman admitted to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1945. She spoke about her worries as well as her sense of great pride for having served her country. The interview was featured in a Google Doodle celebrating Veterans Day on November 12th, 2018. Dr. Hooker passed 11 days later, at 103 years old. However, her barrier-breaking military service was just one part of Dr. Hooker’s life of service, which included working as a psychologist, a professor, conducting research about children with Down syndrome and working with children with learning disabilities. She co-founded the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission and advocated for reparations for Massacre survivors throughout her life.

Roots in Mexico and Mississippi

Dr. Hooker’s father, Samuel David Hooker, was born in 1882 in Lexington, Mississippi. Her mother, Anita J. Stigger, was born in 1887 in Texas. She was a graduate of Tuskegee University. Olivia recalled in a 2017 interview for Fordham University that her mother was a suffragette. The National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was founded in 1896 and launched chapters in several states, the Oklahoma Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs being among the strongest in the country. Women’s suffrage was one of the most hotly debated issues during the Constitutional Convention held at Guthrie between 1906 and 1907. Anita’s mother, Irene Stigger, grew up in a convent in Matamoros, Tamaulipas in Mexico. In a 2015 phone interview, Dr. Hooker recalled that she and her family called her grandmother Irene “Mamacita.” Irene was a sought-after seamstress able to replicate an outfit exactly just from looking at a picture or drawing.

S.D. Hooker moved to Muskogee Indian Territory from Lexington at age 22 in July of 1905. He met Anita and the couple was married on July 2th, 1907. Their first daughter, Irene, was born in 1909. Lesley Carolyn was born in 1910. Samuel David Jr. was born in 1913. Olivia Juliette was born on February 12th, 1915. Mr. T.J. Elliot, chairman of the National Negro Business League’s executive committee, owned a prominent department store in Muskogee, Elliot Furnishings, Clothing & Shoes. He was the exclusive seller of Stetson hats in the region. The store hosted an annual Spring Style show, shown in this 1926 film by Solomon Sir Jones. Elliot offered S.D. Hooker the opportunity to run a branch department store in Greenwood. The two became business partners and opened the new store in 1917, leasing space in the Goodwin building at 124 N. Greenwood Ave. S.D.’s brother, Reverend Jacob H. Hooker, ran a photography studio at 119 N. Greenwood. Marc Carlson, librarian of Special Collections at the University of Tulsa, writes that Reverend Hooker may have been one of the photographers who documented Greenwood’s destruction in the hours and days after the Massacre.

A Child’s Innocence Broken

Olivia attended Dunbar Elementary School in Greenwood from the age of four. Her mother asked that she introduce her first grade classmates to the child of a family visiting Tulsa from South Africa. Olivia and her friends asked,” What games do you play in South Africa?” The child answered, “We don’t play games. We search for diamonds in the gravel.” Soon the teachers found all the children with cups and spoons digging for diamonds in the schoolyard. Olivia recalled, “I must admit, we didn’t find any! But it was fun to think you might come upon a diamond in your schoolyard.” At Dunbar, Olivia was a patriotic young student. She learned about the founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence. White salesmen, wanting her father to carry their products in his store, would bring gifts for the children and listen to them sing and play the family piano. At six years old, she had never learned about discrimination or racism. “I had been in school for two years and I knew about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and I thought it pertained to me…” she stated in several interviews. All of that would change on the morning of June 1st, 1921.

“It was the middle of summer,” Hooker recalled in a 2007 interview with Dr. Barbara Nevergold, “And I couldn’t understand how it would hail during the summer. And my mother said, ‘I’ll show you what’s going on’ and took me to the front window. It was there I saw a machine gun. And she said, ‘Look at that American flag. That means your country is shooting at you.’” Anita hid Olivia, her older sisters and two younger brothers, including baby brother Louis (born 1917), under a large oak dining room table. From her hiding place, she watched men burning her doll’s clothes that were hanging from the clothesline in the family’s backyard before entering their home. The looters set fire to her grandmother’s bed, took an axe to her older sister Caroline’s piano, threw her mother’s cooking out the window and stomped it in the mud, and smashed the family’s record collection. As they left, they stole the family’s clothing and Caroline’s suitcase, which had yet to be unpacked since she had just returned home for the summer from boarding school.

A Miracle and an Escape

Dr. Hooker spoke in a 2010 interview with New York State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins about learning from her father that rumors were circulating for some time before the Massacre among his customers (many of whom were servants of white families and businesses) that their employers were beginning to stockpile weapons and dynamite. “We knew something was gonna happen,” she explained. Hooker revealed that those planning the Massacre were waiting for an event that they could use to cover up their plan to move the Black community out of Greenwood. That event came on Memorial Day weekend when Dick Rowland was arrested for the unsubstantiated claim of attacking Sarah Page.

Dr. Hooker also explained that her father had a large safe in his department store. His customers would bring him money in paper sacks with their names written on them for safekeeping. After the Massacre, the Hooker brothers found both their stores in ruins. The safe miraculously remained intact and its contents untouched. S.D. spent the next several days giving back the money to families who had entrusted him with keeping their modest savings. The Hookers themselves didn’t have much in the way of money stowed away in the store’s safe, but they did have war bonds that S.D. was able to sell. With that money, he and G.A. Gregg, the Executive Secretary at the Hunton Branch YMCA, went on a speaking tour to various Black churches in cities like Washington D.C., Lynchburg and Petersburg in Virginia to tell communities about what had happened in Tulsa. Black churches would take up collections of money and clothing and send donations back to Tulsa. The donations were sent to Booker T. Washington High School, which was set up as a shelter where  people could collect what they needed.

Between the nightmare of the rumors S.D. had heard from his customers unfolding and discovering  Dunbar School was destroyed by dynamite, S.D. and Anita decided that she and the children should move out of Oklahoma for their protection. Olivia and her siblings attended Buchanan Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. Hooker was surprised by the racial prejudice in Topeka as well. She recounted in a story for Fordham University that she and her siblings wanted to see a popular movie that had just opened. She asked her mother for quarters to see the film, telling her that the sign on the theater said: “All children allowed.” “The manager came out and plucked us out of the line,” Hooker remembered, “The sign said ‘all children’ and we were children, we had our quarters, and he said, ‘You’re not welcome.’”

Their father stayed behind to rebuild his business in Greenwood, opening S.D. Hooker & Co. Clothing, which can be seen in video footage of the neighborhood filmed by Solomon Sir Jones from 1925. S.D. also joined eight fellow business leaders, including O.W. Gurley, J.H. Goodwin and attorney I.H. Spears in forming the Colored Citizens’ Relief Committee. The committee is described in local historian Hannibal Johnson’s book Black Wall Street as “a group set up to coordinate…relief efforts for needy African-American families.” They successfully advocated for city officials to provide protection for people reduced to living in tents and invalidate any land transactions in the weeks following the Massacre. The committee also held mass meetings to convince property owners in Greenwood not to sell their land. During this time, S.D. and T.J. Elliot filed four separate lawsuits against insurance companies for the loss of the inventory in their store. All cases were dismissed.

From College to the Coast Guard

After seven years, the family reunited in Greenwood. Olivia attended high school at Booker T. Washington with her classmates John Hope Franklin and his sister Anna. She then went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in 1937 from Ohio State University. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved legislation establishing the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. The act created a program enlisting women to join the war effort in non-combat roles. Hooker was especially interested in the Navy’s Women’s Reserve, known as WAVEs, specifically, the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve, known as SPARs (an acronym for Semper Paratus: “Always Ready”), but it was not until 1944 that Black women were permitted to enlist. By the time the program became available for Hooker to apply, she was almost 30 years old. Nonetheless, her friend and former Coast Guard member Alex Haley encouraged her to enlist. At the time, only one Coast Guard district would accept an African-American female yeoman and that was Admiral Derby in Boston.

Though anxious and not knowing what was in store for her, she must have made a good impression. Of Hooker, SPAR recruiter Lt. Margaret Tighe wrote, “She is to be admired for her initiative and courage. Solely on the basis of qualifications, Miss Hooker is one of the [most] outstanding young women ever accepted for the SPARs and it is a pleasure to recommend her.” Her position in the Coast Guard involved working at the Coast Guard Personnel Separation Center and preparing discharge paperwork for Coast Guardsmen returning from the war and rejoining civilian life. Her unit was disbanded in 1946. Hooker earned the rank of Yeoman, Second Class and was awarded the Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal.

Serving Children with Disabilities

President Roosevelt also championed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the GI Bill), which provided veterans of the Second World War funds for a college education. Hooker took full advantage of this opportunity, earning a masters degree from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1947. She was one of only two Black students admitted. However, she did join the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and found support from fellow Black students nationwide. Her work for the sorority included advocating for Black women to be admitted to the U.S. Navy. 

When it came time to do the clinical practice needed to finish her degree, the clinic near Columbia University in New York told her that they could not assign a Black person to the clinic for fear that they would lose all of their patients. Nonetheless, she insisted that she be allowed to work in the clinic. One of her professors asked if she was getting enough clinic hours. She responded, “No. I’m not getting any clinical hours.” The professor responded, “I’ll fix that.” She was assigned instead to work with children for a book being written by Dr. Percival M. Symonds on adolescent fantasy. She received her license to practice psychology from the Albion State Training School in New York in August of 1948. After graduating from Columbia, she returned to Ohio to teach third grade at Garfield Elementary School in Columbus.

She went on to earn her EdD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Rochester in 1961. Hooker worked alongside eminent psychologist Emory Cowen. She described herself as not being a typical student. In a cohort of 13 students, she was the only woman and the only African-American. Her dissertation discussed the learning abilities of children with Down syndrome. Dr. Hooker worked at the Albion Correctional Facility and served as Director of Psychology and Associate Administrator at the Kennedy Child Study Center for 22 years. In 1963, she joined Fordham University as a senior clinical lecturer and an APA Honors psychology professor. She served as an associate professor at Fordham until 1985.

Speaking for Survivors

Her accomplishments and academic work provided her the opportunity to speak in places like Boston, New York, Rome, Bologna and Egypt, yet she never forgot what she suffered in Tulsa at the age of six. In 1997, Dr. Hooker co-founded the 1921 Race Massacre Commission to investigate the Massacre, which released a report detailing the loss of life and property. The Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was released on February 28th, 2001. In 2003, she participated in a class-action lawsuit against the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma. The civil rights suit sought compensation for the damages that occurred in Greenwood during the Massacre at the hands of local and state government authorities. In 2005, the National Parks Service and the Department of the Interior completed its own report: the final 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconnaissance Survey. However, these efforts left survivors empty-handed. The U. S. Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit in 2005. Despite this disappointment, Dr. Hooker continued to advocate for reparations for Massacre survivors.

She worked as a psychologist at the Fred Keller School, a behavior analytic preschool and early intervention program for children with disabilities, until her retirement at the age of 87 in 2002. She joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary in 2010 at age 95 and served as an Auxiliarist, volunteering in Flotilla 06-08 in Yonkers, New York. She received the American Psychological Association Presidential Citation in 2011. On February 9th, 2015, Kirsten Gillibrand spoke in Congress to pay tribute to Hooker. That same year, the training facility at the Coast Guard’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. and the dining quarters on the Staten Island Coast Guard facility were named in her honor. On May 20th, 2015, President Barack Obama recognized Hooker’s Coast Guard service and legacy while in attendance at the 134th Commencement of the United States Coast Guard Academy.

Dr. Hooker continued to speak throughout the nation, imparting the wisdom of a long life of selfless service. “If you dwell on your misery, you’re not helping yourself or anybody else,” she stated in an article for the American Psychological Association. “So, if you think, ’What can I do to keep this from happening again,’ that helps you to go forward, rather than spending your life pitying yourself.”

For our next profile in our series on the prominent individuals who were instrumental in the creation (and the rebuilding post-1921) of the Historic Greenwood District, we will focus on pioneering Navy service member, esteemed child psychologist, and staunch Race Massacre reparations advocate Dr. Olivia Hooker.

Leave a Reply