Firsts Archives - StoryCorps

Olivia J. Hooker, Pioneer and First Black Woman in the Coast Guard

In November 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law a bill that established the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. Known as SPARS, this new law allowed women to serve in the Coast Guard Reserve for the duration of World War II plus six months. Two years later, in October 1944, the ban on Black women becoming SPARS was lifted and in February 1945, Olivia Hooker joined four other women as the first class of Black SPARS.

An Oklahoma native, Olivia didn’t know anything about boats at the time she enlisted in the Coast Guard Reserve. Joining her fellow SPARS at boot camp in Manhattan Beach, New York, a month after enlisting, she went on to spend her service time in Boston where she worked at a Coast Guard separation center. When the war ended, the SPARS program was disbanded and Olivia returned to civilian life having earned the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class, as well as a Good Conduct Award.

Following her military service, Olivia earned her master’s degree in psychology and in 1961 she received her PhD. When President Barack Obama spoke at the United States Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony in 2015, Dr. Hooker, 100 years old at the time, was sitting in the front row. As the cadets listened, President Obama called her “an inspiration” for the remarkable life she had led, and shared with the graduates her belief that, “It’s not about you, or me. It’s about what we can give to this world.”

In September 2018, At 103 years old, Dr. Hooker sat down for a StoryCorps interview with her goddaughter Janis Porter, to talk about what it was like to be a groundbreaking part of military history, and to share what her time in the service has meant to her. She passed away two months after this interview.

On Veterans Day 2018, StoryCorps collaborated with Google and YouTube on an animated Doodle featuring a voice representing each branch of the military, including Olivia’s. Explore it here.

Top photo: Dr. Olivia J. Hooker (right) and her goddaughter, Janis Porter. Photo by Afi Yellow-Duke for StoryCorps.
Middle Photo: From the original caption for the extra photo: Olivia Hooker (in front) and fellow SPAR Aileen Anita Cooks, pause on the ladder of the dry-land ship ‘U.S.S. Neversail’ during their ‘boot’ training at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Station, Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, NY, 1945.

Originally aired February 28, 2020 on NPR’s Morning Edition.