Many visitors have requested information about the contributions of African American women to the military.
African-American women played major support roles during the Colonial period by providing help to the militia. Their assistance included roles such as moving into the "big house" to support the slaveowner's wife when he went away to serve in the militia, taking care of wounds, and working alongside the men in building forts for safety from both the Indians and the British.
African-American females also played a major role as spies during the Revolutionary War. They kept Colonial authorities informed on the British. With the promise of freedom from slavery as a motivating factor, the African-American woman found innovative ways to assist. According to Lucy Terry's written accounts of the war, Black women disguised themselves as men and fought side by side with them against the British, and kept the homes so that White women could go near their husbands during engagements. Phillis Wheatley, a very literate Black woman, used her writing ability to praise and express appreciation for General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. He showed his appreciation by inviting her to visit him at his headquarters in February of 1776.
War of 1812
The War of 1812 was basically a naval war. Female assistance was limited to making bandages and tending the sick and wounded sailors. Additionally, Black women were able to take care of the farms so that the White men could leave their homes and families and go off to war knowing things would run smoothly.
Harriet Tubman became an inspiration to all who loved and valued freedom. She served as a Union spy, an unpaid soldier, a volunteer nurse, and a freedom fighter. She loved freedom so much that she left her husband and brother behind when they chose not to run the risk of escaping from freedom. During the war, she earned the name "General" Tubman from the soldiers in the field.
Another former slave, Susan King Taylor, became famous for her volunteer service during the Civil War. She escaped from slavery at the age of 12 and was teaching freedmen by the time she was 16. During the war, Taylor met Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who inspired her. Taylor volunteered as a nurse and launderer for Black Civil War troops as she traveled with her husband's unit, the 33rd United States Colored Troops. She formed the Boston Branch of the Women's Relief Corps after the war. Her memoirs, published in 1902, became the only written record of Black volunteer nurses in the Civil War.
Black American females again played the role of nurses. During this war, over 75 percent of all deaths resulted from typhoid and yellow fever. Many Black female volunteer nurses were told that they were immune to the diseases because their skin was darker and thicker. Because of this, many of them exposed themselves to the diseases and became casualties when they returned home. Because of segregated living areas, the Whites never knew the high rate of casualties that these women suffered. The Army was so pleased with the 32 contract Black nurses, however, that many congressmen tried but failed to create a permanent corps of Army nurses.
World War I
For the first time in military history, the African-American females had an official organization where they found leadership and direction to use their abilities. The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses had been founded in 1909. In 1917, the co-founder of the Red Cross urged Black nurses to enroll in the American Red Cross, although they were not accepted until two months before the war ended in November 1918. African-American females continued to serve by making bandages, taking over jobs that men held so they could be soldiers, working in hospitals and troop centers, and serving in other relief organizations as they had in previous wars. Many served in Hostess Houses operated by the Young Women's Christian Association, where they wrote letters home for illiterate soldiers and read incoming mail to them.
World War II
It was not until World War II (1942) that women were officially allowed to serve in great numbers in the armed forces. The Army had the Women's Army Corps (WAC); the Navy had Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES); and the Coast Guard had the SPARS. The majority of African-American women served in the WAC. They remained in segregated units, as did the African-American men. Although the Navy intended to increase the number of African-Americans to 10 percent, there were still less than 50 Black WAVES by 1945. The U.S. Coast Guard had even less in the SPARS. Out of the highest number of women in the military during this period (271,000), only 4,000 were African-American women, simply because there just weren't any opportunities for them. African-American women continued to serve from the Korean Conflict through Viet Nam to Operation Desert Storm.
During WWII the first all black WAC group to serve overseas was the 6888th Postal Unit in England and then France. Here Major Charity Adams reviews the troops in Birmingham England. (National Archives).
African-American women served with distinction during Operation Desert Storm, as officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted soldiers. Of the 35,000 females who went to Desert Storm, an estimated 40 percent of them were African-Americans. According to SSG Betty Brown of the Washington, DC, Army National Guard, all of these women endured the heat and the primitive conditions: no electricity, no running water, no bathrooms, and the sanitation details (cleaning the 10 gallon trash cans that served as toilets).
An African-American woman, LT Phoebe Jeter, who headed an all-male platoon, ordered 13 Patriots fired (anti-missile missiles), destroying at least two Scuds (Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles). (15:100) Another African-American woman, CPT Cynthia Mosely, commanded Alpha Company, 24th Support Battalion Forward, 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), a 100-person unit that supplied everything from fuel to water to ammunition. Her unit resupplied fuel for all of the forward brigades because it was closest to the front lines.
Ensign Matice Wright, the Navy`s first black female naval flight officer,poses for DOD photograph.
Wright was assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 3 (VQ-3). Date: 01 MAY 1993
These women who served in the military since pre-colonial days have paved the way for new recruits and current active duty females to follow. When we look at the statistical data of African-American women entering the military, we find that Black women in FY 1993 comprised 33 percent of Army female recruits, 22 percent of Navy female recruits, 17 percent of Marine Corps female recruits and 18 percent of Air Force female recruits. (21:2-10) Today the statistics tell us that 30.3 percent of the military is African-American women; approximately 33.6 percent serve as enlisted, and 13.1 percent serve as commissioned and warrant officers.
Sgt Danyell E. Wilson, first black woman Tomb Sentinel
The following African-American females have attained the rank of general officer: currently on active duty, BG Marcelite Jorden-Harris, Director Maintenance, Headquarters United States Air Force/LG, and retired from the U.S. Army BG Clara L. Adams-Ender and BG Sherian G. Cadoria.
BGEN Marcelite Harris.
- March 8, 1945, Phyllis Mae Daily, the first Black nurse was sworn into the Navy Nurse Corps in New York City.
- February 12, 1948, the first Black nurse joined the Regular Army Nurse Corps.
- In July 1974, Reverend Alice Henderson was commissioned as a chaplain, becoming the first female chaplain, Black or White.
- Also in July 1974, five Black women out of a group of 15 women became cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
- In May 1975, Lieutenant Donna P. Davis became the first Black woman doctor in the Naval Medical Corps.
- In November 1979, Second Lieutenant Marcella A. Hayes is the fifty-fifth woman out of 48,000 officers to graduate from the Army Aviation School in Ft Rucker, Alabama. She became the first Black woman pilot in the U.S. armed forces.
- In September 1979, Hazel Winifred Johnson became the first Black woman promoted to the rank and position of Brigadier General, Chief of the Army Nurse Corps
- In December 1980, Ensign Brenda Robinson became the first Black female aviator in the U.S. Navy assigned to the Fleet Logistics Squadron Forty in Norfolk, Virginia.
- On May 18, 1983, Angela Dennis of Arkansas became one of the first two Black women to graduate from the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.
Source: Ms. Jacqueline Hodge, an Instructional Systems Specialist at the U.S. Armor School at Fort Knox, Kentucky, served as a participant in the Topical Research Intern Program at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) in March 1995. She conducted extensive research on African-American women and prepared this report. The Institute thanks Ms. Hodge for her contributions to the research efforts.
There is also the National Association Of Black Military Women (NABMW) - A short outline on the NABMW history can be found at: National Association of Black Military Women Contact for the National Association of Black Military Women is:
c/o LTC Kathaleen Harris
5695 Pine Meadows Ct.
Morrow, GA 30260
Please note: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
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interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only. Photos and images are from the National Archives, The Naval History Center, The U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, Defense Visual Information Center, and the personal collections of this author. Nothing on this site is for sale nor is it a commercial venture of any kind - it is a one person page for, and about military women - by one retired military woman.
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