Brief History of Black Women in the Military
Written by: Kathryn Sheldon, former Curator
Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Inc.
American women have participated in defense of this nation in both war and peacetime. Their contributions, however, have gone largely unrecognized and unrewarded. While women in the United States Armed Forces share a history of discrimination based on gender, black women have faced both race and gender discrimination. Initially barred from official military status, black women persistently pursued their right to serve.
During the Civil War, black women’s services included nursing or domestic chores in medical settings, laundering and cooking for the soldiers. Indeed, as the Union Army marched through the South and large numbers of freed black men enlisted, their female family members often obtained employment with the unit. The Union Army paid black women to raise cotton on plantations for the northern government to sell.
Five black nurses served under the direction of Catholic nuns aboard the Navy hospital ship Red Rover. Four of their names—Alice Kennedy, Sarah Kinno, Ellen Campbell and Betsy Young—have been recorded.1 Black nurses are in the record books of both Union and Confederate hospitals. As many as 181 black nurses—both female and male—served in convalescent and US government hospitals in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina during the war.2
Susie King Taylor, Civil War nurse, cook, and laundress, was raised a slave on an island off the coast of Georgia. In April of 1861, Major General Hunter assaulted Fort Pulaski and freed all the slaves in the area, including Mrs. King. When Union officers raised the First South Carolina Volunteers (an all-black unit), Mrs. King signed on as laundress and nurse. Able to read and write, she also set up a school for black children and soldiers.
Mrs. King’s experiences as a black employee of the Union Army are recounted in her diary. She wrote of the unequal treatment,
The first colored troops did not receive any pay for eighteen months, and the men had to depend wholly on what they received from the commissary…their wives were obliged to support themselves and children by washing for the officers, and making cakes and pies which they sold to the boys in camp. Finally, in 1863, the government decided to give them half pay, but the men would accept none of this… They preferred rather to give their services to the state, which they did until 1864, when the government granted them full pay, with all back due pay.
Susie King was never paid for her service.
I was very happy to know my efforts were successful in camp, and also felt grateful for the appreciation of my service. I gave my services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar. I was glad, however, to be allowed to go with the regiment, to care for the sick and afflicted comrades.3
Following the war, Mrs. King established another school for freed slaves. When her husband, Sergeant Edward King of the First South Carolina Volunteers, died in 1866, she collected a widow’s pension. In 1879, she married Russell Taylor. For the remainder of her life, she continued her advocacy for black Civil War troops.
Immediately following the Civil War, William Cathey enlisted in the United States Regular Army in St. Louis, Missouri. William Cathey, intending to serve three years with the 38th US Infantry, was described by the recruiting officer as 5’9” with black eyes, black hair, and a black complexion. The cursory examination by an Army physician missed the fact that William was actually Cathay Williams, a woman.
“William Cathey” served from November 15, 1866, until her discharge with a surgeon’s certificate of disability on October 14, 1868. Despite numerous and often lengthy hospital stays during her service, her sex was not revealed until June 1891, when Cathay Williams applied for an invalid pension and disclosed her true identity. She did not receive the pension, not because she was a woman, but because her disabilities were not service related. Cathay was probably the first black woman to serve in the US Regular Army.4
During the Spanish-American War, black women served as nurses. The yellow fever and typhoid epidemics led Surgeon General Sternberg and Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee, Acting Assistant Surgeon in charge of nurses, to seek out female “immunes“—women who had survived the disease. On July 13, 1898, Namahyoke Curtis (wife of Dr. Austin Curtis, Superintendent of the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, DC) was asked to recruit immune nurses. Herself under contract to the Army as an immune nurse, Mrs. Curtis hired 32 black women who were allegedly immune to yellow fever. Most of her recruits went to Santiago, Cuba, in July and August 1898, to serve in the worst of the epidemics. At least two of their number, T.R. Bradford and Minerva Trumbull died from typhoid fever.5
Other black graduate nurses received direct contracts from the Surgeon General for service in the Spanish-American War. Tuskegee Institute records reveal five nursing graduates served in Army camps. Black women nurses were also recruited from the Washington, DC; Freedman’s Hospital, Provident of Chicago; Massachusetts General; Charity Hospital in New Orleans; and the Phyllis Wheatley Training School. As many as 80 black women may have served.
At the outset of World War I, many trained black nurses enrolled in the American Red Cross hoping to gain entry into the Army or Navy Nurse Corps. As the war escalated, public pressure increased to enlist black women. Finally, shortly after the Armistice, 18 black Red Cross nurses were offered Army Nurse Corps assignments. Assigned to Camp Grant, Illinois, and Camp Sherman, Ohio, they lived in segregated quarters and cared for German prisoners of war and black soldiers. Cessation of hostilities halted plans to assign black nurses to Camp Dodge, Camp Meade, Fort Riley, and Camp Taylor. By August 1919, all black nurses had been released from service as the nursing corps were reduced to their peacetime levels.
One of these pioneering women, Aileen Cole Stewart, later wrote,
The Story of the Negro nurse in World War I is not spectacular. We arrived after the Armistice was signed, which alone was anticlimactic. So we had no opportunity for “service above and beyond the call of duty;” But each one of us…did contribute quietly and with dignity to the idea that justice demands professional equality for all qualified nurses.6
Following the war, demand for a permanent place for black women nurses in the military nursing corps continued. In replying to one such request from Congressman Somers, Colonel C.R. Darnell, Executive Officer, Army Medical Corps, wrote,
The question of opening the Nurse Corps to…colored nurses has from time to time received the serious consideration of this office; but because of the necessity…of arranging their tours of duty in various regions of the United States as well as in our overseas dependencies[,] and of the difficulty if not impossibility of arranging proper quarters and messing facilities for them[,] their employment has been found impracticable in time of peace. You may rest assured that when military conditions make it practicable…to utilize colored nurses they will not be overlooked.7
Black women served their country in other capacities. Four black women were among the 3,480 “Y” women volunteers who helped soldiers and sailors overseas. At the request of the Army, the YMCA provided recreation for the American Expeditionary Force by staffing canteens, nursing, sewing, baking, and providing amusement and educational activities for the soldiers.
In January 1941, the Army opened its nurse corps to blacks but established a ceiling of 56. On June 25, 1941, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 created the Fair Employment Practices Commission which led the way in eradicating racial discrimination in the defense program. In June 1943, Frances Payne Bolton, Congresswoman from Ohio, introduced an amendment to the Nurse Training Bill to bar racial bias. Soon 2,000 blacks were enrolled in the Cadet Nurse Corps.
The quota for black Army Nurses was eliminated in July 1944. More than 500 black Army nurses served stateside and overseas during the war. The Navy dropped its color ban on January 25, 1945, and on March 9, Phyllis Daley became the first black commissioned Navy nurse.
Black women also enlisted in the WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) which soon converted to the WAC (Women’s Army Corps), the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and the Coast Guard SPARS.
From its beginning in 1942, black women were part of the WAAC. When the first WAACs arrived at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, there were 400 white and 40 black women. Dubbed “ten-percenters,” recruitment of black women was limited to ten percent of the WAAC population—matching the black proportion of the national population. Enlisted women served in segregated units, participated in segregated training, lived in separate quarters, ate at separate tables in mess halls, and used segregated recreation facilities. Officers received their officer candidate training in integrated units, but lived under segregated conditions. Specialist and technical training schools were integrated in 1943. During the war, 6,520 black women served in the WAAC/WAC.
Black women were barred from the WAVES until October 19, 1944. The efforts of Director Mildred McAfee and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune helped Secretary of the Navy Forrestal push through their admittance. The first two black WAVES officers, Harriet Ida Pikens and Frances Wills, were sworn in December 22, 1944. Of the 80,000 WAVES in the war, a total of 72 black women served, normally under integrated conditions.
The Coast Guard opened the SPARS (from the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus, “AlwaysReady”) to black members on October 20, 1944, but only a few actually enlisted.
Following World War II, racial and gender discrimination, as well as segregation persisted in the military. Entry quotas and segregation in the WAC deterred many from re-entry between 1946 and 1947. By June 1948, only four black officers and 121 enlisted women remained in the WAC. President Truman eliminated the issues of segregation, quotas and discrimination in the armed forces by signing Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. WACs began integrated training and living in April 1950. Meanwhile, on January 6, 1948, Ensign Edith De Voe was sworn into the Regular Navy Nurse Corps and in March, First Lieutenant Nancy C. Leftenant entered the Regular Army Nurse Corps, becoming the corps’ first black members.
Affirmative action and changing racial policies opened new doors for black women. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, black women took their places in the war zone.
Chief Warrant Officer Doris Allen recalled:
As a senior intelligence analyst in Vietnam, I was recognized as having been responsible through production of one specific intelligence report, for saving the lives of “at least” 101 United States Marines fighting in Quanq Tri Province…. During my years of service I survived many prejudices against me as a woman, as a WAC, me as a soldier with the rank of specialist, me as an intelligence technician and me as a Black woman; but all of the prejudices were overshadowed by a wonderful camaraderie.
On July 15, 1964, Margaret E. Bailey became the first black nurse promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Army Nurse Corps and would later become the first black colonel. Hazel W. Johnson became the first black woman general officer on September 1, 1979, when she assumed the position of Chief of the Army Nurse Corps.
Charity Adams Earley, commander of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in World War II, summarized the history of women in the military when she wrote in 1989:
The future of women in the military seems assured…. What may be lost in time is the story of how it happened. The barriers of sex and race were, and sometimes still are, very difficult to overcome, the second even more than the first. During World War II women in the service were often subject to ridicule and disrespect even as they performed satisfactorily…. Each year the number of people who shared the stress of these accomplishments lessens. In another generation young black women who join the military will have scant record of their predecessors who fought on the two fronts of discrimination—segregation and reluctant acceptance by males.8
Brigadier General Hazel W. Johnson-Brown, USA NC (Ret.), a groundbreaker herself, told attendees at the Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Women In Military Service For America Memorial on June 22, 1995,
In the past, women, particularly minority women, have always responded when there was a crisis or need. We acknowledge all minority women in uniform, both present in this audience and not present. You are the strength of our success. You represent the patchwork quilt of diversity which is America—race, creed, color and ethnicity.
1. Fowler, William M., Jr. “Relief on the River: the Red Rover.” Naval History (Fall 1991): 19.
2. National Archives, Record Group 94.
3. Romero, Patricia, ed. A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1988): 42, 52.
4. Blanton, DeAnne. “Cathay Williams Black Woman Soldier, 1866-1868.” MINERVA (Fall/Winter 1992): 1-12; National Archives Record Groups 15, 94.
5. “Order of Spanish American War Nurses.” Trained Nurse and Hospital Review 23 (1899): 81.
6. Stewart, Aileen Cole. “Ready To Serve.” American Journal of Nursing 63-9 (September 1963): 87.
7. National Archives, Record Group 112.
8. Earley, Charity Adams. One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989): ix.