Written by Lt. Cmdr. Shameen Anthanio-Williams
On Nov. 23, 1942, legislation approved the implementation of the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. The women who joined were more commonly known as SPARs – an acronym derived from the Coast Guard’s motto, ‘Semper Paratus, Always Ready’ – and formed the foundation for women serving today.
On March 9, 1945, Olivia Hooker headed to boot camp. While women had been enlisting for months by then, one thing was unique about Hooker – she was one of only five African American females to first enlist in the SPAR program.
Basic training for Hooker and her fellow recruits was held in Manhattan Beach, N.Y., and lasted six weeks. Now in her 99th year, she still recalls 5 a.m. wakeups, meals, assorted chores and exams. It was these experiences that Hooker shared more than 60 years later with those who have followed in her footsteps.
On a weekend in late spring, Coast Guard members from across the nation had the opportunity to meet Dr. Olivia J. Hooker. They gathered for dinner in Hastings, New York, near her resident city of White Plains.
The atmosphere was joyous as active duty, reserve and retired service-members came together in honor of whom, many affectionately refer to as a national treasure.
“The cadets really enjoyed the experience,” said Lt. Cmdr. Andrea Parker, a Coast Guard Academy instructor. “Both commented on how good it was to see other officers like themselves, hear their stories and just let ‘their hair down.’ Dr. Hooker is truly a national treasure and they were honored to have met (her) and excited to post their picture with her on social media! They were impressed with her story.”
Hooker was instrumental in breaking the military’s racial and gender barriers and had much to share in spirit and in word; she wrapped up the evening with a petition to service.
“It’s not about you, or me, but it’s about what we can give to this world,” said Hooker.
“Meeting Dr. Hooker was an amazing experience. Dr. Hooker’s comments reminded me that no matter how hard I worked, nothing I achieved was on my own,” said Lt. Felicia Thomas, a company officer at the Coast Guard Academy. “She reminded me how important it is to keep paying it forward and to invest in others the way others have invested in me.”
Hooker’s determination to enlist during WWII despite national laws on racial segregation and discrimination opened the doors for citizens in underrepresented populations across America to serve their country.
The SPAR program was disbanded in June 1946, and Hooker earned the rank of petty officer 2nd class as well as a Good Conduct Award. While she no longer served on active duty, she continued to make an impact by serving those around her in her community.
In the many years that followed, Hooker spent much of her time supporting families and communities as a school psychologist and citizen volunteer and has been quoted as “working tirelessly to ensure that victims of racism and violence are not forgotten.”
She has received countless congressional, state and local awards and recognitions for her service to country and community. As a survivor of the tragic 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma race riots, Hooker helped initiate the Tulsa Race Riot Commission which fought for reparations for Greenwood residents. Hooker testified on Capitol Hill of the terror experienced by thousands of African American citizens as many were robbed and killed or had their homes and businesses destroyed.
While Hooker is a nationally-recognized Coast Guard trailblazer and community leader, for the women that gathered that day it was her sheer benevolence that transformed the world around her.
“It’s difficult to capture the inspiration of a great woman,” said Lt. Cmdr. Rachel Lewis. “Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have overcome barriers and changed history. Dr. Olivia Hooker is a woman whose selfless contributions have forged a path for generations to follow. ‘Thank you’ isn’t enough to express our gratitude, but we must continue the work to improve paths for future generations.”