As a young child in the early 1920s, Olivia Hooker was blissfully unaware of racism. She and her family lived in a vibrant black community of entrepreneurs outside of Tulsa, Okla., where the only white people she knew were gregarious salesmen soliciting her father, who owned a department store. The men came bearing presents and often lingered to listen to her sister play the piano. "I thought that was the kind of personality all whites had," Hooker told CUNY TV in 2008.
But on May 31, 1921, a 6-year-old Olivia learned a harsh reality. As bullets pounded the neighborhood, she and her siblings crouched beneath the kitchen table while a mob of white men torched the family's backyard, then stormed the house, overturning pots and pans and pouring oil over their grandmother's bed.
The Tulsa Race Riot — ignited by the white community's impression that a white woman had been assaulted by a black man — left 35 city blocks destroyed, almost 9,000 people homeless and at least 100 dead, according to the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which considered the uprising "the worst civil disturbance since the Civil War."
"I didn't find out until that day … that I was left out" of the Constitution, Hooker said at APA's 2011 Annual Convention, where she accepted a presidential citation for her efforts to propel the riot's story into America's history books and collective consciousness. Hooker helped the Tulsa Race Riot Commission develop its recommendations for restitution for survivors and testified in Congress in 2007. Although the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case for reparations, "you don't give up hope," says Hooker, now 97. "You keep on plugging."
Hooker is also renowned as the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard and as a pioneering psychologist when there were few African-American women in the field. Her other noteworthy accomplishments include writing a German vocabulary guide for psychology students, leading a Girl Scout troop in a town where she was the only black person, helping to establish APA's Div. 33 (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) and teaching people of all ages — from preschoolers to PhD candidates — to embody the Golden Rule.
"If you dwell on your misery, you're not helping yourself or anybody else," she says. "So, if you think, ‘What can I do to keep this from happening again?' that helps you to go forward, rather than spending your life pitying yourself."
After the riot, Hooker and her family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where in 1937 she earned her undergraduate degree in psychology and education from the Ohio State University. In school, she and her sorority sisters of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. advocated for African-American women to be admitted to the Navy, which had rejected Hooker twice based on "technicalities." But even after the policy changed, the Navy's composition was slow to evolve.
"I thought, ‘Well it's a shame to battle for our civil rights and then have no one take advantage of it,'" she says. "I thought, ‘If I go, if I survive, maybe someone else will be brave enough to come in.'" So she did, opting in 1945 to join the U.S. Coast Guard, which becomes part of the Navy in times of war. In the Coast Guard, Hooker says she "got a much wider view of the culture of the United States as a whole" since she could no longer socialize exclusively with other African-Americans.
Then in 1946, Hooker cashed in her benefits from the GI bill to earn her master's in psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. After graduation, she was told she "wasn't intelligent enough" to get a higher degree at Teachers College, so she moved upstate to work in the mental hygiene department of a women's correctional facility in Albion.
Most of the women at the institution had learning disabilities, but many were considered less capable than Hooker believed they were. By re-evaluating them, Hooker helped the women pursue better educations and better jobs. The trick was approaching them with an open mind, she says.
"Don't judge a person by the letters behind their name because there are very often cases in which you can learn something from the person that's scrubbing the doorstep," she says.
In 1961, Hooker completed her doctoral studies at the University of Rochester, where she was the only woman and only African-American in her class. She became a psychology professor at Fordham University in 1963, and stayed for 22 years. Celia Fisher, PhD, who directs Fordham's Center for Ethics, remembers Hooker initiating and leading a mentoring program for ethnic-minority students.
"She became not only a model, but a very good friend and lifelong mentor for many students and faculty," says Fisher.
One of those students, Scyatta Wallace, PhD, is now an associate professor of psychology at St. John's University. Wallace adopted Hooker as an "informal mentor" when she was a doctoral candidate and Hooker was professor emerita. Hooker encouraged her to give a voice to African-American psychologists. "She was very big on making sure I understood the importance of giving back to the community," says Wallace, who was often invited to Hooker's house to share a meal and talk about life and current events. "To me, she's an inspiration as a human being, not [only] as a psychologist." Hooker continued her work as a psychologist at the Fred Keller School in Yonkers until 2002.
‘I'm still working on it'
These days when Hooker wakes up in her home in White Plains, N.Y., she might read the paper or skim a magazine. If she comes across a story that reminds her of a former student, she clips it and puts it in the mail. Often, these students drop by for a chat or to take her to the grocery store or bank. She works on her balance so that she can travel to conferences, such as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History meeting she attended in September. "It's not an exciting life, but it's a satisfactory life," she says.
Sometimes, Hooker contemplates the things she wishes she had done, such as learn to ride a bike, play a stringed instrument or ride a horse. She didn't conduct much research because she preferred to spend her time mentoring students. When working as an associate administrator at the Kennedy Child Study Center, she didn't negotiate for higher pay or interview for other jobs because she loved the one she had. She was never married but she did fall in love. (The man she might have married died of a heart attack.) She never had children, but her godchildren, pupils and Girl Scout troop kept her from feeling childless.
Most of the time, however, Hooker works on what's still to be done. There are still reparations to be won for the riot survivors and American history books to be rewritten. There's still a lot to figure out too, such as why — as they did in Tulsa 91 years ago — people still shoot guns into crowds. "I keep harping on that: Let's see what are the stresses and strains on that person's life that make them behave the way they're behaving," she says, "I haven't figured it out, but I'm still working on it."
Katharine Milar, PhD, of Earlham College, is the historical editor of "Time Capsule."
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