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Social Activists and Politicians

Olivia Hooker (1915–2018)

University of Rochester alumnus. Psychologist and professor. Survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The first African American woman to serve active duty in the US Coast Guard.

An illustration of Olivia Hooker
Illustrated by Michael Osadciw

As a young girl, Olivia Juliette Hooker ’62 (PhD) witnessed one of the most violent and deadly riots in United States history, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. It left as many as 300 dead, more than 1,000 homes and businesses destroyed, and 10,000 people homeless in Greenwood, Oklahoma, a once-prosperous area known as “The Black Wall Street.”

The images of hatred and injustice never left Hooker. Throughout her lifetime, Hooker led efforts to gain recognition and restitution for those who lost their loved ones, homes, and livelihoods in the massacre.

After losing their family department store in the riot, the Hooker family fled Tulsa and settled in Columbus, Ohio, with next to nothing.

Determined to rise above her circumstances, Hooker went on to achieve a bachelor’s degree in education from Ohio State University. She then taught and encouraged third graders in Columbus for several years.

“If you dwell on your misery, you’re not helping yourself or anybody else. So, if you think, ‘What can I do to keep this from happening again?’ that helps you go forward, rather than spending your life pitying yourself.”

—Olivia Hooker

In World War II, Hooker hoped to serve her country despite her early disillusionment. However, the US Navy refused to enlist a woman of color.

Hooker did not give up. Instead, she enlisted with the US Coast Guard, becoming the first African American woman to serve in active duty.

After the war, Hooker attended graduate school on the GI Bill, achieving a master’s degree from Columbia University and, in 1961, a doctorate in psychology from the University of Rochester.

As a teacher, mentor, and clinician, Hooker devoted the rest of her life to helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She cited fairness and an open mind as keys to her success.

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

—Olivia Hooker

Hooker turned lives around at the Albion Correctional Facility for women in Albion, New York. She offered therapy and support to children with learning disabilities as a director at the Kennedy Child Study Center in New York City. And, she inspired and mentored students of color for 22 years as a senior clinical lecturer and an APA Honors Professor at Fordham University.

Even after her retirement in 1963, Hooker continued to help children with developmental disabilities at the Fred Keller School for Behavioral Analysis until the age of 87.

In October 2019, the US Coast Guard announced the commission of their 61st Sentinel Class, fast-response cutter, the USCGC Olivia Hooker.

As President Barack Obama pointed out in his address at the 134th Commencement of the Coast Guard Academy, Hooker was “a tireless voice for justice and equality.” Indeed, she embodied the US Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus (Always Ready).

Awards and Honors
  • American Psychological Association Presidential Citation
  • New York State Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame inductee
  • The Olivia Hooker Dining Facility, Staten Island Coast Guard Facility, named in her honor
  • Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft dedicated a training center within Coast Guard Headquarters named in her honor
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