African Americans in Times of War: Black Women and the US Military

A company of African American WAACs line up for review during WWII

With this year’s Black History Month theme, “African Americans in Times of War,” we should all take time to honor the servicemembers who had to struggle for the right to serve in the US military.

African Americans have a rocky history with the military, battling unequal pay, segregation, systematic oppression, and, at the beginning of it all, the very right to serve.

This same right, the right to serve their country as part of the military, was battled for even longer by women. Many of the very first women in the US military had to pose as men to be allowed to fight at all.

Racism and sexism are two major civil rights issues that have reared in the military’s history—and African American women in the military have had to battle both.

Black Women in the Early Military

Even during times in America’s history that are stained with slavery and the terror it created, black American women served in multiple military support roles.

The American Revolution

Despite the fact that most black American women at the time of the American Revolution were slaves, they still contributed to the war. African American women, promised freedom from slavery, served as spies for the Patriot cause. Others supported the war by cooking, washing, and working on fortifications.

One enslaved African American woman, Mammy Kate, saved her Georgian master from British imprisonment “on [the] eve of his execution,” according to her grave inscription. The story goes that she sneaked her master, Governor Stephen Heard, out of prison by hiding him in a basket of laundry that she carried on her head.

After the successful plan, Kate was freed and given land on her master’s plantation. Later, the state of Georgia honored her as a patriot of the Revolution, and she was the first black woman to be so honored by the state.

Since the Revolutionary War was fought to give people freedom (though those who received it were mainly white), women who helped begin the end of slavery during the time should be remembered as war heroes as well.

Elizabeth Freeman, called “Mum Bett” by her owners, was one such woman. She grew up in slavery, but sued her master for her freedom and won. In 1781, the Massachusetts court ruled that under the state’s new Constitution, she was not ever the property of her masters, and Mum Bett was freed. She took the name Elizabeth Freeman after gaining her freedom. The case served as precedent for the abolishment of slavery in the state.

Civil War Heroines: Nurses, Cooks, and Spies

During the Civil War, many black women served in military support roles such as nurses, launderers, cooks, and spies.

Susie King Taylor was the first black nurse for the Army, serving as nurse and laundress with the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment for four years. And, since she had an education (a rare thing among people who grew up enslaved), she also taught black Union soldiers to read and write. She said she gave of her services “willingly . . . without receiving a dollar.”

In addition to providing integral nursing services, black women also served as spies for the Union cause. Some southern slaves aided the North, relaying Confederate information and helping Union soldiers escape from Confederate camps. Other free African American women posed as Southern slaves to get information.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was one famous African American spy. She worked in Confederate homes and used her photographic memory to remember military documents and other information useful to the North.

Another woman famous for her work as a scout, spy, and abolitionist during the Civil War is Harriet Tubman. She started as a nurse for the Union, but eventually she started to do scouting and spy missions for the northern cause. In 1863, she and Colonel James Montgomery led troops in raids into the South, freeing over 700 slaves. She was called “General Tubman” by the soldiers.

Undercover Black Female Soldiers

The first known African American woman to serve as an enlisted soldier was Cathay Williams, who enlisted in 1866, just after the Civil War. She was the only known female in the ranks of the buffalo soldiers, a group of six all-black regiments that fought in the Indian Wars, as well as others.

To be allowed into the military at a time when it was illegal for a woman to enlist, she had to pose as a man, calling herself William Cathey. She served with the 38th Infantry Regiment for two years before her gender was discovered and she was released honorably with a certificate of disability.

Just how many black women may have posed as men and served at the time or previously, in the Civil and Revolutionary War, is unknown.

The “Immunes” of the Spanish American War

In the Spanish American War, African American women continued to nurse soldiers. When looking for soldiers and nurses to serve in illness-heavy areas of the war, leaders searched for “immunes,” or men and women who they thought would not be harmed as badly by yellow fever and typhoid.

People chosen as “immunes” often had already had the diseases. Additionally, many white people thought that black people were naturally more immune to the diseases. Thirty-two black “immune” nurses were hired.

“Immunes” served in contact with the worst diseases. Two of the thirty-two black nurses, T.R. Bradford and Minerva Trumbull, contracted typhoid fever and died while serving.

During this time period, 80 other black women served in different hospitals and schools.

World War I and World War II

Nurses of World War I

During WWI, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses was formed, which was the first official military group for African American women; however, black women were not allowed to serve until the war was a few months from finished.

The Red Cross, responding to public pressure and an influenza epidemic, assigned 18 black nurses to Army Nurse Corps positions in Illinois and Ohio in 1918. Over 1,800 were actually qualified to serve, yet these 18 were all that were allowed.

The Slow Progression of World War II

At the beginning of WWII, Mabel K. Staupers of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses asked that the Army Nurse Corps change its discriminatory practice of not allowing black nurses to serve. In 1941, the Corps allowed a quota of 56 black women—a small number, but still a marked step toward equal treatment nonetheless.

In 1943, Congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton led Congress in amending the Nurse Training Bill to attempt to eliminate racial bias in the Nurse Army Corps. By the end of the war, the quota was eliminated and 600 black women had served as nurses; one nurse, Margaret E. Bailey, accepted a commission. She later became the first African American lieutenant colonel in the Army Nurse Corps, and in 1970 was promoted to full colonel. She was also an advocate for integration in the military.

In 1941, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was created. Forty of the first group of 400 were African American women, and they were segregated from white women. In 1943, the group was replaced by an organization with official military status, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).

The female sections of the other branches were also opened up to black women, but out of all women’s military groups across branches, the large majority of black WWII servicewomen served in the WAC (about 6,500). But while white women in the WAC and other military women’s groups were assigned to overseas tasks, black women were not.

In November 1944, however, this changed. The mail situation in the European theater was chaotic, preventing many soldiers from receiving mail and decreasing morale. The War Department created the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, consisting of all black women.

The battalion was commanded by Major Charity Adams, the first black officer in the Women’s Army Corps and a strong leader. The group completed the task in half the time of the deadline given.

A Woman’s Right to Serve—But Only If She’s Ladylike

Two law changes in 1948 gave women fuller access to military service. On June 12th, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was signed by President Truman, allowing all women to serve in the Regular Army as well as in the Organized Reserve Corps.

And on July 26th, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the military across male and female ranks.

These laws, however, did not mean that racism in the military was suddenly a thing of the past, or that women were seen as able to do work equal to that of men. The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act stated that women could only make up two percent of servicemembers, could only rise to the rank of colonel or commander, and could not hold leadership positions over men.

Military “Ladies”

Additionally, recruiting ads at the time featured white, slender women with full faces of makeup. And out of a public fear that homosexual women would be attracted to joining the military, the ads avoided depictions of the sisterhood of the military.

Even in the military training itself, women were taught to be “ladylike.” Female military groups had a special emphasis on “ladylike” activities and presentation, with women’s basic training including things like makeup application classes. And because of the abovementioned homophobia, servicewomen were also discouraged from displaying closeness with one another in public through linking arms or holding hands.

According to Integrating the Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since WWII, “A 1954 handbook for new Women in the Air Force (WAF) personnel included thirty-nine out of eighty-seven pages devoted to information on beauty, fashion, and uniforms.”

African American women, though not depicted in recruiting materials, were also subject to the “femininity” focus in the military. Integrating the Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since WWII points out that Ebony magazine echoed the prevailing sentiments of the time, saying that “the women’s services never make the mistake of considering WACs as soldiers or WAVEs as sailors.”

According to the same book, one WAC woman in Vietnam responded to requests that women focus on always appearing feminine, saying, “There is hardly any doubt that the WACs here are aware that a small part of their femininity had been sacrificed. But then, are we here to satisfy the desires of the male ego or are we here to do a job?”

Motherhood Trumps Military

The focus on “femininity” training as an important aspect of the military continued for years. Women that were pregnant or were mothers of dependent children were not allowed to serve until 1975. That year, a new Department of Defense policy stated that pregnant servicewomen and servicewomen with children had to request a discharge for it to be given to them.

Black Servicewomen in Later Wars

Korea and Vietnam

The Korean War saw the US have the first integrated military since the American Revolution. According to the Buffalo Soldiers Research Museum, black female officers from WAC voluntarily returned to duty where they performed administrative positions, helped soldiers get supplies, and wrote letters to the families of men killed in battle.

Additionally, African American women served as nurses in the Korean theater as well as in Japan, Hawaii, and the western US.

When the Vietnam War started, many African American servicewomen volunteered, including WAC servicewomen and nurses.

One Vietnam hero was Major Marie Rogers. She served for 18 years as an Army nurse and was the operating room supervisor in the 24th Evacuation Hospital. She was awarded a Bronze Star from President Johnson for her service.

Additionally, the Soldier’s Medal of Heroism, the most prestigious non-combat military award, went to First Lieutenant Diane M. Lindsay, who served in the 95th Evacuation Hospital. She received the award in 1970 for convincing a confused soldier to hand over a grenade after he had already thrown a live one.

After the Vietnam War, women were allowed in the National Guard, ROTC programs, and service academies.

Also after the war, Hazel W. Johnson, a woman who had trained surgical nurses preparing to go to Vietnam, became the first black female to be a general in the Army. She was made Chief of the Army Nurse Corps in 1979.

Persian Gulf War and Continued Combat Exclusion

African American women were a large part of the success of Operation Desert Storm. Black women made up 40% of the 35,000 women in the operation.

“The Persian Gulf War marked a turning point in the role of women in war, as women served in mainstream mission roles for the first time,” said Library of Congress Veterans History Director Bob Patrick.

One woman who is famous for her contributions to Desert Storm is Lieutenant Phoebe Jeter. She was the first and only female Air Defense Artillery Officer to lead a platoon shooting down a Scud missile. The platoon she led was comprised of all men.

Thirty percent of all Army troops in the Persian Gulf were African American men and women, representing black people twice as much as in the country’s civilian population. This fact sparked a controversy at the time, with some arguing that this was just a part of the volunteer nature of the military and others pointing out that those dying for their country were doing so disproportionately because of inequities at home.

“This nation ought to be ashamed that the best and brightest of our youth don’t volunteer because they love it so well, but because this nation can’t provide them jobs,” said Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, according to a 1991 New York Times article.

Christopher Jehn, Assistant Secretary of Defense for force management and personnel, had a different opinion. According to the same NYT article, he said: “They’re not victims; they’re willing, patriotic Americans.”

Whatever your opinion on why black women and men served and whether their overrepresentation was a positive, negative, or random reflection of the culture of our country, it is certainly true that they made a sizable contribution to the war effort.

But despite these large contributions, women were still not allowed to serve in some positions, regardless of whether or not they could pass required trainings and tests. They performed well in many different positions involving strenuous and intense work, and were allowed in some combat missions. However, they were not allowed to work with direct combat roles and collocated units.

Combat Changes During the Current Afghanistan and Iraq War

According to Buffalo Soldier Research Museum, women make up 15% of all military service and 10% of all soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the Afghanistan and Iraq war, the longest war in US history, the level to which women have been allowed in combat has slowly evolved.

Just before the beginning of the war, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US sent a shock wave through the country. Many Americans remember just how much changed for the country after those attacks. One thing that began to shift was the role of women in the military.

Throughout the war, women commanded fighter squadrons and received the Silver Star for combat action for the first time. And at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, two women became prisoners of war.

One of these women was Shoshana Johnson, the first African American female prisoner of war. She was ambushed along with Jessica Lynch and Lori Piestewa*, who was killed.

Lynch and Johnson were both taken prisoner and later rescued, but the difference in coverage of the individuals sparked controversy. Lynch, a white woman, received a major book deal and much more coverage than Johnson. Simply compare their Wikipedia pages to see the huge difference in length and listed sources.

*Lori Piestewa was the first female soldier killed in Iraq, and is believed to be the first Native American woman to die for her country. For further reading, check out this post on Native American contributions to the US military.

Allowed in Combat

In 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the ban on all combat positions, beginning the process of women having full access to combat positions.

In 2014, Major General Marcia M. Anderson, the Army’s first female black two-star general, discussed the contributions of African American women to the nation’s military and emphasized the importance of gender integration in the military. “Pretty soon there is going to be no limit, I think personally, to what women can and will do for our services,” she said.

And she was right. Just a year later, in 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that servicewomen could serve in combat posts. This became active in 2016, despite resistance from the Marine Corps and critics.

In late 2017, the first woman ever completed the US Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course, an achieved that has allowed her to become the first female Marine infantry officer. She has chosen to remain anonymous.

Current Battles for Equality

Although slavery, segregation, and gender discrimination are not legal today, that doesn’t mean that all battles for black women in the military are over.

Military Sexual Trauma

Sexual assault in the military continues to be a major problem for both women and men in the military. Though it is a major problem for both genders, the stark truth is that servicewomen are five times more likely to be assaulted than servicemen.

A 2017 survey by the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) found that “service women across the nation say that sexual assault is the number one factor negatively affecting their mental well being.”

Thirty percent of women surveyed identified Military Sexual Trauma (MST) as most impacting their mental health, while only nine percent referred to deployments or combat as having an impact. The group surveyed over 1,300 women across military branches.

And this sort of trauma doesn’t just fade away. Female veterans are 250% more likely to commit suicide than female citizens.

For a detailed report on the topic, read “Sexual Assault in the Military,” a 2013 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights. For a shorter version, read “Why Military Women Are Missing from the #MeToo Moment” by Antonieta Rico of Time magazine.

Systematic Battles

Black women in the military recently saw a change to restrictions in military policies that had previously banned them from wearing hairstyles traditional to their culture. The restrictions forced black women to adhere to hairstyles common among white women, like straight hair, which required expensive, damaging chemical treatments and salon visits (things that are not easy to come by during deployment).

The grooming regulations were changed in 2014 to allow hairstyles that are accessible to most women.

The Legacy of African American Servicewomen

Despite criticisms of Black History Month by some for its focus on one race, history as taught in American classrooms has often left out the achievements and leaders in the black American community.

Though the experience of black Americans should not be relegated to just one month, Black History Month is a crucial part of ensuring that the forgotten stories among us are not lost.

These stories include the important roles black servicewomen have played in American military history. And though not everything is ideal, the long battle to full integration and participation for black women in the military has resulted in many vast improvements.

The determination of American black servicewomen throughout history, as well as today, has produced a society which is much better for it. As we work to continue toward an equal society, we honor what you have done.

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