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White Plains Woman Vows to Help in Her 96th Year

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – After Olivia Hooker , 96, broke her hip and neck this summer, she had to give up volunteering at several organizations near her home on the border of Greenburgh and White Plains. She gave her car to the Tree of Life, which delivers meals to homebound people, and pledged to continue to assist anyone who calls her with a problem.

“They had an ad in the paper saying, ‘give us your car,’ so I did. Different people have been nice about giving me rides,” said Hooker.

Hooker, who retired as a profesor of psychology for Fordham University's Graduate School, planned to devote the rest of her time to volunteering. However, she became “enchanted” by the students at the Fred Keller School for Behavioral Analysis when she visited for an interview and ended up staying as the psychologist in charge for 10 years.

“It’s a school for young children who either were rejected from the nurseries in their hometown or couldn’t get into Head Start because of their behavior,” Hooker said of the Yonkers school. “A little 3-year-old said to me, ‘Come in and see my learning curve.’ He said, ‘See, that’s my name and you see when it goes up, I’m doing better.’ And I thought that was so precious. It was amazing to me to see how well they did.”

Hooker used to be a member of the NAACP Education Committee, where she helped ensure black boys were not wrongly placed in special education classes. She also became involved with volunteer efforts to assist children in the Westchester Medical Center’s pediatric unit, and helped run the former White Plains Child Day Care Center, which primarily served low-income children.

For years, Hooker and approximately 100 other survivors of the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 traveled around the country showing the “Before They Die!” documentary that recounts the May 3, 1921 riot that claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 blacks and decimated black neighborhoods in Tulsa, Okla.

“Maybe eventually people will see that it was not fair. They didn’t fully compensate the Japanese that were interned during World War II, but they did get something. So we felt that was a precedent. The campaign is still on but we don’t know if there will ever be restoration,” said Hooker.

Hooker continues in her father’s footsteps in fighting for her community to be compensated for the hundreds of ruined stores and homes owned by blacks in Tulsa.

“It took 80 years to even get this apology, but we did finally get it,” Hooker said while showing a medal and letter of apology from the State of Oklahoma. “They gave us a statement that we could frame what showed that we were victims, and that we were not the perpetrators of it.”

At the time, she was age 6, and said she was “devastated.” She had “believed in all of the ‘home of the brave’ and ‘freedom for all’ that they taught us in America without question.” Hooker later moved to Topeka, Kan. to finish high school, and relocated to Columbus, Ohio to attend college.

While teaching in Ohio, Hooker said she supported the movement to allow black women to join the U.S. Navy. She later became the first black woman on active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard.

“I waited and read the papers every week to see who joined and I thought somebody would because we had campaigned so hard to get that opened up. Well, nobody joined,” said Hooker. “That’s how I decided, well, if I go and if I succeed, maybe some other people will get the courage to join.”

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