This Day in History: Olivia J. Hooker, Coast Guard heroine

On this day in 1915, an American heroine is born. Olivia J. Hooker would become the first black woman to serve in the United States Coast Guard.

She sure survived a lot to get to that point.

Trouble started early, during the Tulsa race riots of 1921. Olivia was then just a 6-year-old girl, living in the midst of something bigger than herself: The community believed that a black teenager had assaulted a white woman. The facts were in doubt, but that didn’t stop what followed. The city was left in turmoil as a mob ransacked homes and businesses in Greenwood, a thriving and predominantly black community.

Homes were torched. People were killed. As for Olivia, she was in her home when it was attacked.

“I remember our mother put us under the table,” Olivia later remembered. “She took the longest tablecloth she had to cover four children and told us not to say a word. It was a horrifying thing for a little girl that’s only 6 years old.”

The attackers took an axe to a piano, and they poured gas on a bed. They nearly torched it, but didn’t—mostly by fluke.

“The most shocking was seeing people you’d never done anything to irritate would just, took it upon themselves to destroy your property because they didn’t want you to have those things,” Olivia concluded.

She must have aged years in a single night?

Unsurprisingly, Olivia’s family left Tulsa and went to Topeka. “Our parents tried to tell us, don’t spend your time agonizing over the past,” she later explained. “They encouraged us to look forward and think how you could make things better.”

Which is exactly what she did. Olivia earned her college degree from Ohio State University and was teaching third graders when World War II started. At one point, just as military reserve services were being opened to minority women, she tried to join the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).

She was declined due to some unknown technicality—but Olivia was undeterred. She moved on to the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (known as the SPARs). The recruiter there understood that it wasn’t easy for a black woman to volunteer in that day and age. “She is to be admired for her initiative and courage,” that recruiter concluded as she recommended Olivia for SPARs.

Olivia would become the first of five black women to join the Coast Guard during World War II. She spent most of her time there preparing recent discharges to return to civilian life.

It left an impression on her. On one occasion, she helped a young man who had survived D-Day by hiding under dead bodies. He was there for hours. “He made the war seem very real to me,” Olivia concluded.

After the war, Olivia took advantage of the G.I. Bill, earning both a Master’s degree and a doctorate before going on to teach at Fordham University.

She’d come a long way from that little girl hiding under a table in the midst of a frenzied mob—and she managed to keep her perspective, too.

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