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Trailblazers: The Five African-American SPARs of World War II

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Olivia Hooker, front, with Aileen Anita Cooke (National Archives)

By Denise Krepp 2019-07-26 14:53:03

During World War II, over 11,000 women served in the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. Collectively, they were known as SPARs. Five of them were African-American - Dorothy Winifred Byrd, Julia Watson Mosley Shields, Olivia Hooker, Aileen Anita Cooke Moore and Yvonne Cumberbatch.

Little is known about these women. Who were they, what did they do during the war, and what happened to them after it ended? With help from the librarians at the National Archives, I set out to answer these questions.

Before joining the Coast Guard, Dr. Hooker survived the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. She served on active duty as a yeoman from March 1945 to June 1946. After the war, she earned a master’s degree at Columbia University and then a doctorate at the University of Rochester. Dr. Hooker served on the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, and the Coast Guard named a building after her on Staten Island. She died last year at the age of 103.

Yvonne Cumberbatch was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1917. The United States entered World War I that year and women couldn’t vote. Ms. Cumberbatch arrived in the U.S. in 1924 aboard the SS Voltaire and became a naturalized U.S. citizen on December 16, 1943. Joining the Coast Guard on June 2, 1945, Ms. Cumberbatch served as a SPAR until April 30,1946.
After the war, Ms. Cumberbatch lived in New York City. She visited Trinidad and Tobago in 1953 and died in Philadelphia on July 30, 1988.

Julia Watson Mosley Shields was born in Farmville, Virginia in 1921. She attended segregated schools, which were overcrowded and underfunded to the point that by 1951, students sued for better services. The Farmville case plus four additional cases were combined to form Brown v. The Board of Education. The Supreme Court mandated school integration in 1954. The leaders of the Farmville schools refused to do so and closed all schools in 1959. The schools didn’t re-open until 1964.

The story of the Farmville schools illustrates the racial bias Ms. Shields endured while growing up in Jim Crow Virginia. This bias, however, didn’t stop her from serving on active duty in the Coast Guard. Nor did it stop her brothers: Two served in the Army during World War II and another in the Army during the Korean War. Their father, born in 1881, filled out a draft card for service during World War II. 

Ms. Shields’ husband also served in the Army during the Second World War, making them the first multi-service African American family - a fact previously unrecognized. After World War II, Ms. Shields and her husband lived in Richmond, Virginia. Their race was denoted (as was then acceptable) by an asterisk in the city’s phone book. Ms. Shields died in
1999.

Aileen Anita Cooke Moore was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1925. Per the federal census, Ms. Shields parents were both from Illinois. Ms. Moore and her parents lived in Pasadena, California in 1930 and 1940. Ms. Moore served as a SPAR from May 6, 1945 until April 10, 1946. She worked at the Boston separation center. Ms. Moore died in Buffalo, New York in
1992. There is no record on Ancestry.com or in the National Archives on who her husband was or if they had any children.

Dorothy Winifred Byrd was the hardest one to find. There is a photo of her on the Coast Guard website. And there is a reference on Ancestry.com of a lady named Dorothy Byrd (1922-1982) serving in the Navy during World War II. But nothing else. No census records or addresses.

Dorothy Winifred Byrd, Julia Watson Mosley Shields, Olivia Hooker, Aileen Anita Cooke Moore and Yvonne Cumberbatch were trail blazers. August 4th is the Coast Guard’s birthday and it will be a day of celebration. Please join me in toasting the five African American SPARs who opened the door for future generations of Coast Guard women and minorities.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp is a former Coast Guard officer.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.