Vote 2020 graphic
Everything you need to know about and expect during
the most important election of our lifetimes

Dr. Olivia Hooker, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Survivor and One of the First Black Women to Join the U.S. Coast Guard, Dies at 103

Illustration for article titled Dr. Olivia Hooker, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Survivor and One of the First Black Women to Join the U.S. Coast Guard, Dies at 103

According to The Spokesman-Review, Olivia Hooker—one of the last survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, as well as one of the first black women to join the U.S. Coast Guard—has died. She was 103.


Dr. Hooker would go on to become one of the first black women to serve in the Coast Guard and retired as an associate professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York.

As one of the last survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, she served as one of the final witnesses to the deadliest episode of racial violence in American history. The same history that America refuses to take accountability for and conveniently omits from our history books.


She was all of 6-years-old when her beloved Black Wall Street descended into fire and chaos on May 31, 1921. In what would live on in infamy as the Tulsa Race Massacre, as many as 300 black people died at the hands of a white lynch mob—while thousands more saw their businesses, residential properties, and livelihoods destroyed. The monetary damage exceeded more than $1 million in value at the time.

Hooker referred to those horrifying 48 hours of death and destruction as “The Catastrophe”. A group of black war veterans tried their best to protect her and others within their community, but they were overwhelmed by the pure volume of hatred from their oppressors.

“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.”


But of all the horrors she experienced during the massacre, one memory in particular haunted her for decades: “My grandmother had made some beautiful clothes for my doll. It was the first ethnic doll we had ever seen. … She washed them and put them on the line. When the marauders came, the first thing they did was set fire to my doll’s clothes. I thought that was dreadful.”

Prior to the massacre, her father owner a department store in Greenwood, otherwise known as Tulsa, Oklahoma’s epicenter of black commerce—Black Wall Street. Thankfully, her family survived the massacre.


“It took me a long time to get over my nightmares,” she told the Post. “I was keeping my family awake screaming.”

After relocating her mother and five siblings to Topeka, Kansas temporarily, her father attempted to rebuild his business in Tulsa. He would later become a public speaker, touring black Methodist churches and sharing the grisly details of Black Wall Street’s unjust demise.


Upon Hooker’s return to Tulsa, she attended Booker T. Washington High School before joining her Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s efforts to integrate the military. With the onset of World War II, the Navy had begun to enlist women.

“They wrote back and said there is a complication,” she told the Post. “They wouldn’t tell me what the complication was.”


So instead, she enlisted in the Coast Guard in early 1945, which was three years after Congress passed a law approving the creation of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve—which filled jobs vacated by men who went abroad to fight in the war. Under this decree, Hooker became one of the first African American women to join the women’s reserve, better known as SPARs.


She was stationed in Boston, where she performed administrative duties before the SPARs program was eventually disbanded in 1946. After discharging from duty as a petty officer 2nd class, she went on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Rochester before becoming a senior clinical lecturer at Fordham in 1963. She retired from the university in 1985.

In 2015, the Coast Guard named a building on Staten Island after her. While this honor is traditionally reserved for those who have died, they made an exception for her due to her “distinguished service to the Coast Guard and her wonderful efforts in serving and helping others.”


“She was a national treasure, she was a very special lady,” Coast Guard spokesman Barry Lane said.

But despite her success as an educator elsewhere, Hooker remained committed to the community of Tulsa.


In 1997, she joined the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which investigated the circumstances surrounding the massacre and issued a report in 2001 “detailing for the first time the extent of the city and state government’s involvement in the riot and in the cover-up that followed and the total lack of remedy available in the courts at the time,” according to a congressional report.

In 2003, over 100 survivors and roughly 300 descendants of those who either lost property or were killed in the massacre filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma, seeking compensation for the damages that occurred as a direct result of the government’s involvement in the massacre. However, in what is typical in these circumstances, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit without comment in 2005.


“I was glad so many of us were still there, still in the world trying to do good,” Hooker told the Post in June. “There are a lot of answers I was never able to figure out.”

In 2015, she was honored by President Barak Obama during a Coast Guard ceremony. During which, President Obama recounted her life story and described her as a “tireless voice for justice and equality.


According to her goddaughter, Janis Porter, she died at her home in White Plains, New York. She had no surviving relatives and an immediate cause of death wasn’t provided.

“Her mind was clear, no dementia.” Porter told KTLA 5. “She was just tired.”

To learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre, please read “Who Killed Black Wall Street?” written by one of our founders, Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Menace to supremacy. Founder of Extraordinary Ideas and co-host and producer of The Extraordinary Negroes podcast. Impatiently waiting for ya'll to stop putting sugar in grits.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Ms. Nytusse If You're Nasty

I have always been especially interested in history, even as a child. I used to read every history textbook I could get my hands on, whether they were my own from school or others that I would buy at used book stores. In college, I took several classes that covered the time period of the Tulsa Race Massacre and I also studied the civil rights movement at the undergrad and graduate levels.

So why is it that I had never heard of this event before I started reading this site a few months ago? Three HUNDRED people is an incredibly significant amount historically, especially considering the context that it was in the U.S., in the modern era, during peacetime.