Celebrating the Legacy: African-American Women Serving in Our Nation’s Defense
As the nation celebrates the accomplishments, lives and legacies of African-Americans during Black History Month, we have the unique opportunity to reflect on the contributions and achievements of thousands of black women who have served in our nation’s defense. Whether on the battlefield or off, in times of war or peace, at home or abroad, the history of African-American women’s service is as long as it is distinguished. Since the Civil War—and likely since the American Revolution, though no early documentation has been discovered—African-American women have served in every war and conflict and in every branch of service. From nurses to spies, postal clerks to fighter pilots and cooks to drill sergeants, black women have selflessly served in every military career field imaginable for more than a century.
Here are but a few snapshots of the numerous contributions of African-American servicewomen, which have gone largely unrecognized, throughout our nation’s history:
Did you know …
Harriet Tubman served as a spy, scout and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. An escaped slave made famous for her work with the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, she passed undetected through Confederate lines and acted as a liaison between Union troops and recently freed black slaves. In 1913, Tubman was buried with full military honors at Ft. Hill Cemetery, Auburn, NY.
The only known woman Buffalo Soldier was Cathay Williams, a Missouri slave. She disguised herself as a man, William Cathay, and enlisted in one of six black infantry units after the Civil War. She served from Nov. 15, 1866, until her discharge on Oct. 14, 1868, and her true identity was not discovered until she applied for an Army pension in 1891.
Black “immune” nurses served as Army contract nurses during the Spanish-American War. The 32 “immunes” were thought to be immune to yellow fever during the yellow fever and typhoid epidemics, but at least three of them died from their exposure to the illness. A total of 80 African-American professional nurses served under contract with the Army, including five graduates from the prestigious Tuskegee Institute
African-American women served in WWI as Yeomen (F). Of the 12,000 Yeomen (F) who served from 1917-1921, 14 were black.
During WWI, 18 black nurses served as Red Cross reserve nurses. After the Armistice, Nov. 11, 1918, they entered the Army Nurse Corps and cared for POWs. They were assigned to Camp Grant, IL, and Camp Sherman, OH, and lived in segregated quarters while caring for German POWs and black soldiers.
WWII black recruitment was limited to 10 percent for the WAAC/WAC—matching the percentage of African-Americans in the US population at the time. For the most part, Army policy reflected segregation policy. Enlisted basic training was segregated for training, living and dining. At enlisted specialists schools and officer training living quarters were segregated but training and dining were integrated. A total of 6,520 African-American women served during the war.
The Army’s all-black 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion served with distinction in England and France in 1945. Commanded by MAJ Charity Adams (later Earley), the unit was comprised of 30 officers and 800 enlisted women. Defying expectations, they successfully streamlined the local postal system within a short period of time.
A survivor of the 1921 Tulsa race riot, reportedly one of the worst race riots in US history, Olivia J. Hooker enlisted as one of the first black women to join the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARs) during WWII. Encouraged to enlist by her friend, Alex Haley, a cook aboard the USCGC Mendota, she served from 1945-46. She used her GI Bill benefits to study for her master’s and doctorate in psychology.
2LT Evelyn Decker, Army Nurse Corps. Women’s Memorial Foundation Register PVT Sarah Keys, Women’s Army Corps. Women’s Memorial Register
1LT Diane Lindsay receives the Soldier’s Medal for heroism, Vietnam, 1970. Army Nurse Corps Collection, Office of Medical History, Office of the Surgical General
Executive Order 9981, signed in July 1948 by President Harry S. Truman, mandated an end to racial discrimination and segregation in the US Armed Forces.
Of the approximately 600 women stationed in Korea during the entire three years of the Korean War, only a few were African-American. Army nurse LT Evelyn Decker, who served in several segregated hospitals before her Korea assignment, served in integrated hospitals in Korea.
Black WAC PVT Sarah Keys refused to take a seat at the back of the bus she was riding in while traveling home on leave in August 1952—three years before Rosa Parks took her historic “seat” on the Montgomery, AL, bus. PVT Keys was arrested for disorderly conduct, but she fought back. She and former WAAC/WAC and lawyer Dovey Johnson Roundtree took the case to the Interstate Commerce Commission. After three years, in November 1955, the ICC issued a ruling that outlawed race-based seating on inter-state transportation.
Of the two Army nurses awarded the Soldier’s Medal for heroism in Vietnam, one was African-American 1LT Diane Lindsay. She was cited for restraining a Vietnamese soldier patient, who had pulled a pin from a live grenade at the 95th Evacuation Hospital in Vietnam. 1LT Lindsay helped convince the soldier to relinquish a second grenade, avoiding additional casualties.
In 1972, Mildred C. Kelly became the first African-American woman E9 (Sergeant Major) in the US Armed Forces. She began her Army career in 1950 with the intention of staying for one three-year tour to save money to return to graduate school. She retired 26 years later as a command sergeant major.
Black women were among the first 81 women who enrolled as midshipmen at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD, in 1976.
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was promoted to brigadier general in 1979, making her the first black woman general officer in the history of the US military and the first black Chief of the Army Nurse Corps. She was the first Chief holding an earned doctorate.
In 1985, the US Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Mary McLeod Bethune, famed educator and civil rights activist, who pressured Army leaders to allow black women in the WAAC/WAC during WWII. She assisted in the selection of the first black WAAC officer candidates.
The Air National Guard promoted its first African-American woman general officer in 1987. Air Force nurse Irene Trowell-Harris retired as a major general in 2001. Dr. Trowell-Harris currently serves as the director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans.
It is estimated that as many as 40 percent of the 41,000 servicewomen serving in Operation Desert Shield/Storm were black women.
Since 1997, African-American women have been among the elite few chosen to guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
USMC 1st Lt. Vernice Armour became the first African-American woman combat pilot in the USMC and US military history in 2003. Formerly an enlisted Army reservist, Lt. Armour flew her Cobra helicopter in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
There are currently 95,000 black women serving on Active Duty, Reserve or Guard in the US military today; and there are 350,000 African-American living women veterans in the United States.