Olivia Hooker (b. 1915)

by Jenna MacKay, Carleton University

Life offers both a formal education and an informal education.  At the age of 6, Olivia Hooker learned a cruel life lesson: America is not always the land of the free, especially if you are black. On the morning of May 31, 1921, Hooker and her mother looked out the window of their home in Greenwood, a thriving black community in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her mother explained what they saw: “That is a machine gun up there on that hill, and there’s an American flag on it. That means your country is shooting at you” (Hauser, 2005). The Tulsa Race Riots, although often omitted from history books, have been described as the most devastating act of racialized violence in American history. Hooker, now aged 96, is a fierce survivor of these riots and continues to fight for a better tomorrow, both as a psychologist and as a citizen. 

The riots broke out following the accusation, by a white woman, that a young black man had assaulted her (the claim was never substantiated). The young man was taken into custody and 10,000 white men were deputized, deciding to take “justice” into their own hands. Overnight, 300 African Americans were dead or missing, and the 42 square blocks of Greenwood, known as “Black Wall Street,” were burned to the ground (Hauser, 2005). Hooker’s father, who owned a department store, saw his business reduced to rubble and would never receive insurance compensation for the thousands of dollars of damages (Delson, 2009). Hooker has reported that white folks in the community had been stockpiling weapons and dynamite for quite a while. Evidently, the accusation was enough of a spark to ignite their hatred.

Following the obliteration of their home, business, and community, Hooker’s family cashed a bond protected from the vigilantes by an intact safe (Delson, 2009), and moved to Columbus, Ohio.  Her father began a career in real estate and Hooker struggled to sleep soundly through the night, resisted attending school with white teachers, and found artillery shells in her surviving dresser (Talbert, 2008). 

Hooker completed her undergraduate degree at Ohio State University during the Depression. Following graduation she became the first black woman in the U.S. Coast Guard (Thiesen, n.d.). Earlier she had applied to the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) of the U.S. Navy, only to be rejected due to her ethnicity. Resiliently, she applied to the Coast Guard, was accepted in 1945, and served until her unit disbanded in mid-1946. 

With her GI Bill benefits, Hooker went on to earn a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University (Hauser, 2005). She then interned in a prison for women, working with women with developmental disabilities, and began her doctoral studies in psychology at the University of Rochester (Senate honors Dr. Olivia Hooker, 2010). During her PhD, Hooker worked alongside eminent psychologist Emory Cowen.  Hooker describes herself as not being a “typical student” (Hauser, 2005).  In a cohort of 13 students, she was the only woman, the only African American, and the oldest. Her research focused on the learning abilities of children with Down syndrome, and her career has focused on children with developmental disabilities more generally.

Hooker worked as a professor of psychology at Fordham University until1985 (Hauser, 2005). Until 2002, she was a psychologist at the Fred Keller School, a behavior analytic preschool and early intervention program for children with and without disabilities (Senate honors Dr. Olivia Hooker, 2010).

Throughout her later life, Hooker has been actively involved in raising the American consciousness about the Tulsa Race Riots. She has participated in the creation and dissemination of the documentary Before They Die, which seeks reparations for riot survivors from the American government (Talbert, 2008). She has also testified on Capitol Hill in unsuccessful hearings organized by the Congressional Black Caucus on restitution for Greenwood residents (Hauser, 2005).

In a tribute to Hooker’s capacity to overcome adversity through her contributions to psychology and social justice, she was recently the recipient of an American Psychological Association (APA) Presidential Citation. The citation was presented to her by the president of the Society for the History of Psychology, Dr. David Baker, at the 2011 APA Convention in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Hooker gave the Mary Whiton Calkins lecture to a transfixed audience.

Summarizing her strength, intellect, commitment to community, and ability to inspire others, the following text was read at the conclusion of her talk:

“As a survivor of the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, Dr. Hooker learned at an early age to turn adversity into opportunity and to use her many gifts and talents in service to others. She was the first African American woman to go on active duty in the United States Coast Guard and among the first group of women to obtain a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in clinical psychology.  She has dedicated herself to the acceptance and understanding of developmental disabilities. She was one of the founders of APA’s Division 33, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and served as an early director of the Kennedy Child Center in New York City.  As a faculty member at Fordham University, she mentored many students and shaped their professional lives. A model of resiliency and courage, Dr. Hooker helped to found the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. She has worked tirelessly to ensure that victims of racism and violence are not forgotten. Throughout her life Dr. Olivia Hooker has served the cause of social justice and done so with grace and humility. True to the mission of the American Psychological Association, she has embodied the principle of promoting human welfare” (APA Presidential Citation, August, 2011).

Olivia Hooker’s life and work teach us that although we can always choose the path of compliance, apathy and defeat, we can also choose the path of justice, hope, and strength.

References

Delson, S. (2009, August 31).  An interview with survivor Dr. Olivia J. Hooker. American Legacy Magazine Blog.  Retrieved from http://www.rjrmediagroup.com/wordpress_blog/?p=179 

Hauser, S. (2005).  Race and remembrance: A survivor of the nation’s worst race riot remembers a devastating lesion.  Rochester Review, 68(2).  Retrieved from http://www.rochester.edu/pr/Review/V68N2/after.html

Senate honours Dr. Olivia Hooker (2010, March 31).  Hudson Valley Press Online.  Retrieved from http://www.hvpress.net/news/126/article/8952/2010-03-31.html

Talbert, M. W. (2008, November 21).  Surviving destruction of “Black Wall Street.”  Black Enterprise.  Retrieved from http://www.blackenterprise.com/2008/11/21/surviving-destruction-of-‘black-wall-street’/

Thiesen, W. H. (n.d.).  SPAR Olivia Hooker: First African-American woman in the Coast Guard.  U.S. Coast Guard history program. Retrieved from http://www.uscg.mil/history/people/HookerOliviaBio.pdf