The Long Blue Line: Olivia Hooker – Minority Trailblazer and Community Leader

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

Olivia Hooker

NEW YORK – At 98 years old, Olivia Hooker recalled her experiences as one of the first African American female members in the Coast Guard SPAR program during World War II. Hooker is a native of White Plains, N.Y., and received her Doctorate as a school psychologist. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ali Flockerzi.

“She is to be admired for her initiative and courage. Solely on the basis of qualifications, Miss Hooker is one of the outstanding young women ever accepted for the SPARs and it is a pleasure to recommend her.” -Lt. Margaret Tighe (SPAR Recruiter, 1945)

Throughout history Coast Guardsmen have fought for the freedoms Americans hold dear. However, the fight for freedom hasn’t always been with a foreign enemy.

In World War II, some Coast Guard service members fought another war within the very country they were protecting – a society who denied them rights and freedoms.

This problem was experienced firsthand by American minorities, many of whom fought our enemies while struggling against institutionalized discrimination.

Such was the case for Olivia Juliette Hooker, the first African-American woman to wear a Coast Guard uniform.

Born in 1915, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Hooker was six years old when the Klu Klux Klan burned her father’s clothing store in the infamous 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. Hooker’s family survived the riots, but her father sought a community where his children could get an education and live without fear of violence.

Hooker’s family moved to Topeka, Kansas, and then Columbus, Ohio, where she graduated from high school in 1937. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education from Ohio State University. For the next eight years, she remained in Columbus, teaching third grade at the old Garfield School, built in 1883.

Meanwhile, World War II was raging. During the war, there existed a number of female military corps, such as the Navy’s Women’s Reserve, known as WAVEs, and the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve, known as SPARs (an acronym for Semper Paratus “Always Ready”), however only Caucasian women were allowed to serve.

That all changed in October 1944, when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered that these female military corps be opened to all minorities.

A candid photograph captured on board a cutter by Coast Guard public affairs specialist in 1945. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

A candid photograph captured on board a cutter by Coast Guard public affairs specialist in 1945. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

By the time the military opened enlistment to include African-Americans, Hooker was nearly 30 years old. However, Hooker’s friend, Coast Guardsman Alex Haley, who later earned fame for such literary works as Roots, encouraged her to join the military.

Despite experiencing discrimination and racial violence in her own country, she made up her mind to support the nation’s war effort. After being denied admittance into the WAVEs, Hooker was accepted into the Coast Guard SPARs in 1945.

Upon her enlistment, Lt. Margaret Tighe, a recruiter at the Columbus recruiting station, wrote, “It was not easy for Miss Hooker to take the step of enlistment. She is the first Negro woman to be accepted by the SPARs, and is in full realization of this fact. She feels a sincere desire to serve and further feels that she is opening a field for the young women of her own race.”

After completing boot camp and yeoman training, Hooker received orders to the Coast Guard Personnel Separation Center in Boston. She spent most of her time preparing discharges for the numerous Coast Guardsmen returning from the war and rejoining civilian life.

Some Coast Guardsmen would share their wartime experiences with her.

One 18-year-old Coast Guardsman revealed how he came under heavy fire on D-Day during the Normandy landings and laid under a pile of dead bodies for cover for several hours.

“He made the war seem very real to me,” Hooker said.

By mid-1946, most wartime Coast Guardsmen had been processed out of the service and the SPARs were disbanded, giving Hooker the opportunity to excel in other ways.

Using her GI Bill benefits, she earned a masters degree in psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Rochester. By the early 1960’s, Hooker began a career as a psychologist and a professor of psychology at New York’s Fordham University. She also served as a member of the Kennedy Child Study Center in the Bronx.

She retired in 2002, at the age of eighty-seven after a long career in education and mental health care.

Official Coast Guard photograph of SPAR Olivia Hooker in uniform. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Official Coast Guard photograph of SPAR Olivia Hooker in uniform. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Throughout her life, Hooker has been a leader in civic, community, cultural and educational organizations- including the NAACP, her local White Plains Child Daycare Association and Westchester Visiting Nurse Services- and several other organizations. She has also served as a consultant on minority issues at Fordham University and as youth counselor and certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church.

Hooker has been a pioneer in the history of women and minorities in the Coast Guard and the nation. She said her military service taught her a lot about order and priorities and how to better form relationships, and how to deal with people without bias and prejudice.

Despite experiencing hatred and racism in her youth, Hooker has dedicated her life to serving the needs of her community and her nation, living by her life philosophy, “it’s not about you or me; it’s about what we can give to this world.”

Now, at the age of 101, Hooker remains an important member of the long blue line and an example of the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.

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