By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Olivia Hooker leaned on a cane Wednesday morning and beamed out at a crowd of men and women in military uniforms, sitting side by side.
Hooker, 96, was telling the story of how she became the first African-American woman to join the Coast Guard in 1945. She spoke of discrimination, but she kept returning to what she sees as the much brighter present day.
"I have seen a lot of progress," Hooker said, her voice strong and clear. "I'm so impressed we have so many women who have risen up to the top. That just really delights my soul."
Hooker speech at Federal Hall was part of "Women At War," a daylong National Park Service event in honor of Women's History month. Female service members from all branches of the Army joined together to share their experiences and learn from one another's stories.
Hooker's path to the Coast Guard started when she was 6 years old and the 1921 Tulsa race riots swallowed her neighborhood. She remembers her mother bringing her over to a window and pointing to a soldier bearing a machine gun with an American flag on it.
"See that?" Hooker's mother said. "Your country is shooting at you."
The troops were actually brought in to subdue the riots and protect all of Tulsa's citizens, but the moment made a deep impression on Hooker.
"My parents had not told me about prejudice," Hooker recalled. "I believed in justice and liberty for all, and everything else I had been taught in school."
Hooker's family fled to Ohio, but nightmares from the riots followed Hooker and she often awoke screaming at night. The trauma eventually faded, but her desire for a better world did not.
"My parents taught us that when something bad happens to you, you don't act bitter and mourn," Hooker said. "You try to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else. It was their philosophy about trying to make the world a better place that got me through."
Hooker earned a degree from Ohio State and then, during World War II, she tried to join the WAVES, the women's branch of the US Navy, but was rejected because of her race. Hooker next went to the Coast Guard, where she was accepted into the women's division, called the SPARs (Semper Paratus Always Ready).
She completed her training in the spring of 1945 and was deployed to Boston, where she typed discharge paperwork and interviewed returning soldiers until the war effort was complete in 1946. She remembers the job as "pleasant," with plenty of camaraderie, marred by occasional instances of racism.
After being discharged, Hooker got her doctorate in psychology and taught in the New York area until she retired at the age of 87. She now lives near White Plains.
Among the women listening to Hooker's story Wednesday was Coast Guard Petty Officer Bonnie Wysocki, who spent most of last year in Iraq and Kuwait, traveling to remote bases inspecting hazardous materials.
While Wysocki, 28, noted that much has changed in the past 65 years, she said her gender and small frame proved a challenge in the field. She was often the only woman on her team and was at times the only female Coast Guard member in all of Iraq.
"It was intimidating at first," said Wysocki, who has a 4-year-old son and lives in Youngstown, N.Y. "But it was a challenge I enjoyed."
Many of the male soldiers did not take her seriously at first, but "I proved them wrong," Wysocki said. "And it's not like, 'Ha ha, I proved them wrong.' They were my brothers then. They could say, 'I can lean on this woman. She is just as strong if not stronger than a man.'"
After Hooker finished her tale Wednesday, women in the audience asked if she had any advice. She told them to keep a journal, because at 96, the names from decades earlier start disappearing.
Her response prompted questions about what it feels like to live for so long, which Hooker answered in good humor.
"It's not the golden period you would like it to be," she said. "You have to plan everything: how you get your socks on, how you comb the back of your hair, how much liquid you can drink before you leave the house."
As for the secret to her longevity, she said it was simple: "Not smoking, not drinking and having fabulous doctors."