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Dr. Olivia Hooker Advocates Equality Through Respect

White Plains' Dr. Olivia Hooker, a survivor of the Tulsa Race Riots, was recently honored in the Westchester County Senior Hall of Fame and at its Black History Month Trailblazers award ceremony.

  • Editor's Note: This story was originally posted on White Plains Patch on Feb. 15. It was chosen for The Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day feature on Feb. 17, and can be found here

An angry mob of white men charged into her house while her mother was cooking breakfast. They robbed the house and tossed out the freshly made meal after burning down a clothesline where her doll clothes hung. Dr. Olivia Hooker first experienced discrimination at the age of 6, while hiding under a table with her siblings for of fear of being shot.

“They didn’t break the [family’s] old rugged cross,” said Hooker, who has lived in White Plains [Greenburgh] for the last 59 years. “In a sense, they gave us a message about what they thought was appropriate for us.”

The mostly black Oklahoma neighborhood was burned to the ground that day in 1921 during the Tulsa Race Riots—according the New York Times, 300 people died that day while 8,000 were rendered homeless. Some reported that airplanes were flying over Tulsa that day dropping incendiary bombs, but Hooker says that’s not what children read about in history books.

Westchester County recently presented her with the Civic Engagement Betty Shabazz Award as a part of their annual Black History Month Trailblazers ceremony—and named Hooker as the main honoree in this year’s Senior Hall of Fame—yet the 97-year-old hopes that one day there will be no need for a Black History Month.

It will be simply known as history.

“You shouldn’t have to separate it—but you do have to have it [Black History Month] because the history books are written for a certain audience,” said Hooker, who has been a civil rights and women’s rights advocate for most of her life. “They leave out important things. We need to have verified history, and not let people teach wrong ideas.”

Hooker, who retired as a psychologist at the age of 87, has witnessed and fought against prejudice in various forms throughout her life.

“I would want every single person to spend some time advocating for equality in employment and equality in education,” said Hooker. “Respect for people has nothing to do with the color of their skin.” 

She recalls her mother wearing tall boots to trek through the mud to get to the polls, which were placed in muddy areas to deter women from voting for the first time. Later in life, she was twice denied admittance to the U.S. Navy because of a “technicality.”

After refusing defeat, she was admitted to the Navy when she directly wrote to its secretary. Instead she joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1945 and was the first African American woman to enlist. 

“I learned about the importance of keeping people to their duties without insulting or mistreating them,” said Hooker. “It [being in the military] teaches you how to better form relationships, and how to deal with people without bias and prejudice. It not only teaches you to be tolerant, but how to be creative and step up to the plate.”

After completing her service she became a school psychologist, where she witnessed teachers fighting the administration—sneaking in lessons to minority children about fractions. Though many in Albion, New York—who Hooker said, “had not been accustomed to treating minorities well”—snubbed her at first, she later won them over and was invited to meet with the local rotary club.

Though she experienced discrimination, she never returned the unkindness while working as a psychologist at Bedford Correctional Facility for Women.

“I treated them [the prisoners] as if they were visitors in my living room,” said Hooker. “No matter what they had done, I never brought it up in any way or degraded them. They appreciated that, they were in my corner all the time.” 

In addition to her volunteering with the local NAACP chapter, she volunteered at Westchester Medical Center during the 1980s at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. While many people at the time were afraid to be in a room with an HIV positive child, she would visit with the children even on days she wasn’t supposed to be volunteering. She couldn’t fathom how some mothers refused to see their dying children for fear that they would contract the virus.

Regardless of the things Hooker has seen in life, she never lost faith in humanity and its potential.

“I still believe there is good in everyone,” said Hooker. “Maybe they’ve done a heinous crime, but somewhere there is good that can be brought out. That’s what we have to learn, how to deal with people who have no impulse control. I think we could have a peaceful world, if we put the preservation of life at the top of our priorities. And we can do that, it would be a much better world to live in.”

Joan Jennings February 15, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Not being one to rest on her laurels, Dr. Hooker recently joined Division 6, Flotilla 6-t8 (Yonkers) of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, displacing 90+ year old Art Spinner as our oldest Auxiliarist. She is a national treasure with an infectious smile as well as a sharp and alert mind. I wish I had half her energy! God bless Dr. Olivia Hooker.
Dina Sciortino February 15, 2012 at 03:48 PM
Thank you so very much for adding this Joan! I kept saying over and over how I love her smile in this pictures, so beautiful. Me too! Thanks again!
ELLEN February 19, 2012 at 11:00 PM
People who rant against celebrating Black History Month have no idea of what had been omitted from the history books. My father in law told us of the slaughter on Oklahoma. You will never read that in any history book aside from a Black History account.
Kelly Steele March 13, 2012 at 07:38 PM
I am currently a member of the Coast Guard and would love to meet Dr. Hooker, does anyone know how I can get in contact with her or if she has a PR person?
MaryBeth Maney April 03, 2013 at 06:27 PM
Dr. Hooker - Such a wonderful honor for my shipmate and Coast Guard buddy- congratulations - semper SPAR atus - WW2 veteran and Sister of the Divine Compassion Mary E. Maney

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