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These Black Female Heroes Made Sure U.S. WWII Forces Got Their Mail

These Black Female Heroes Made Sure U.S. WWII Forces Got Their Mail



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An army unit known as the “Six Triple Eight” had a specific mission in World War II: to sort and clear a two-year backlog of mail for Americans stationed in Europe. Between the Army, Navy, Air Force, the Red Cross and uniformed civilian specialists, that amounted to seven million people waiting for mail.

And the responsibility to deliver all of it fell on the shoulders of 855 African-American women.

From February 1945 to March 1946, the women of the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion distributed mail in warehouses in England and France. Because of a shortage of resources and manpower, letters and packages had been accumulating in warehouses for months.

Part of the Women’s Army Corps, known as WACs, the 6888 had a motto, “No mail, low morale.” But these women did far more than distribute letters and packages. As the largest contingent of Black women to ever serve overseas, they dispelled stereotypes and represented a change in racial and gender roles in the military.

When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was no escaping the fact that women would be essential to the war effort. With American men serving abroad, there were countless communications, technical, medical and administrative roles that needed to be filled. The Women’s Army Corps—originally created as a volunteer division in 1942 until it was fully incorporated into the army by law in 1943—became the solution.

READ MORE: Pearl Harbor Attack: Photos and Facts

WACs attracted women from all socio-economic backgrounds, including low-skilled workers and educated professionals. As documented in the military's official history of the 6888th, Black women became WACs from the beginning. Civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, a personal friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and a special assistant to the war secretary, handpicked many of them.

“Bethune was lobbying and politicking for Black participation in the war and for Black female participation,” says Gregory S. Cooke, an historian at Drexel University, whose documentary, Invisible Warriors: African American Women in World War II, highlights African American Rosie the Riveters.

Black women were encouraged to become WACs because they were told they wouldn’t face discrimination. In other divisions, such as the Navy, Black women were excluded almost entirely, and the Army Nurse Corps only allowed 500 Black nurses to serve despite thousands who applied.

READ MORE: When Black Nurses Were Relegated to Care for German POWs

Becoming a WAC also gave African-American women, often denied employment in civilian jobs, a chance for economic stability. Others hoped for better race relations, as described in scholar Brenda L. Moore’s book, To Serve My Country, To Serve My Race: The Story of the Only African American WACs Stationed Overseas during World War II. One WAC Elaine Bennett said she joined “because I wanted to prove to myself, and maybe to the world, that we [African Americans] would give what we had back to the United States as a confirmation that we were full-fledged citizens.”

But discrimination still infiltrated the Women’s Army Corps. Despite advertisements that ran in Black newspapers, there were African American women who were denied WAC applications at local recruitment centers. And for the 6,500 Black women who would become WACs, their experiences were entirely segregated, including their platoons, living quarters, mess halls and recreational facilities.

A quota system was also enforced within the Women’s Army Corps. The number of Black WACS could never exceed 10 percent, which matched the proportion of Blacks in the national population.

“Given the racial, social and political climate, people were not clamoring to have Blacks under their command,” says Cooke. “The general perception among commanders was to command a Black troop was a form of punishment.”

The jobs for WACs were numerous, including switchboard operator, mechanic, chauffeur, cook, typist and clerk. Whatever noncombat position needed filling, there was a WAC to do it. However, some Black WACs found themselves routinely given menial tasks, such as janitorial duties, even if they had the skills to do more substantive work.

But the stresses of war changed the trajectory of Black women in November 1944, when the war department lifted a ban on Black WACs serving overseas. Led by African American Commander Charity Adams Earley, the 6888 Central Postal Directory was formed—an all-Black, female group of 824 enlisted women, and 31 officers. Within the selected battalion, most had finished high school, several had some years of college and a few had completed a degree.

READ MORE: How Women Fought Their Way Into the U.S. Armed Forces

After their training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, which entailed crawling under logs with gas masks and jumping over trenches, the 6888th sailed across the Atlantic, arriving in Birmingham, England, in February 1945.

In unheated and poorly lit buildings, some with rodents rummaging through spoiled cookies and cakes, the 6888 took on its mission of clearing an enormous backlog of undelivered mail.

Divided into three separate, 8-hour shifts, the women worked around the clock seven days a week. They kept track of 7 million identification cards with serial numbers to distinguish between soldiers with the same names. They investigated incomplete addresses and also had the unfortunate task of returning mail addressed to soldiers who had been killed.

To their relief, the 6888 had a congenial relationship with the Birmingham community. It was common for residents to invite the women over for tea, a sharp contrast to the segregated American Red Cross clubs the 6888th couldn’t enter.

READ MORE: Did World War II Launch the Civil Rights Movement?

After finishing their task in Birmingham, in June 1945, the 6888 transferred to Rouen, France, where they carried on, with admiration from the French, and cleared the backlog. Next they left for Paris in October 1945, where they would remain, distributing mail to Americans longing to hear from their loved ones, until their mission was completed in March 1946.

While the work was taxing, as an all-Black, female unit overseas, they understood the significance of their presence.

“They knew what they did would reflect on all other Black people,” says Cooke. “The Tuskegee Airmen, the 6888 represented all Black people. Had they failed, all Black people would fail. And that was part of the thinking going into the war. The Black battalions had the burden that their role in the war was about something much bigger than themselves.”


11 Women Warriors of World War II

There are more stories of heroism out of World War II than can ever fit in a school textbook, but hundreds of those stories are written down somewhere for those who want to find them. Over 100 million military personnel participated in the war, including many women. Here are the stories of eleven of these brave women. They are from many countries, and they all did their part and more for the Allied effort.

1. Nancy Wake: Guerrilla Fighter

Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Nancy Wake was a journalist in New York and London and then married a wealthy Frenchman and was living in Marseille when Germany invaded. Wake immediately went to work for the French resistance, hiding and smuggling men out of France and ferrying contraband supplies and falsified documents. She was once captured and interrogated for days, but gave no secrets away. With the Nazis in hot pursuit, Wake managed to escape to Britain in 1943, and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British intelligence agency. After training with weapons and parachutes, she was airdropped back into France—as an official spy and warrior. Wake had no trouble shooting Nazis or blowing up buildings with the French guerrilla fighters known as maquis in the service of the resistance. She once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands. After the war, Nancy Wake was awarded the George Medal from the British, the Medal of Freedom from the U.S., and the Médaille de la Résistance and three Croix de Guerre from France, among other honors. She also found out that her husband had died in 1943 when the Gestapo had tortured him to find out his wife's whereabouts. He refused any cooperation to the point of death.

Wake ran for political office a few times in Australia, and remarried in the 1950s. She published her biography, The White Mouse, in 1988. That was the Gestapo's nickname for her due to her talent for sneaking by them. Nancy Wake died August 7, 2011 at age 98.

2. Elsie Ott: Flight Nurse

Lieutenant Elsie S. Ott was the first woman to receive the U.S. Air Medal. Already a trained nurse, she joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 and was sent to Karachi, India. The Army Air Corps was considering using airplanes to evacuate injured military as they delivered fresh troops. Ott was assigned to the first evacuation flight with only 24 hours notice -and she had never flown before. The plane had no medical equipment beyond first aid kit supplies, the patients had a motley variety of injuries, diseases, and mental illnesses, and there was only one army medic to help her care for the passengers. The plane left India on January 17, 1943 and made several stops, picking up more patients, on its 6-day flight to Washington, D.C. The previous route for such a mission was by ship, and took three months. Ott wrote up a report on that flight, recommending important changes for further evacuation flights. She returned to India a few months later with a new unit, the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad, and was promoted to captain in 1946.

3. Natalia Peshkova: Combat Medic

Natalia Peshkova was drafted into the Russian Army straight out of high school at age 17. She was trained with weapons that didn't work and then sent off with a unit so woefully equipped that at one time a horse ate her felt boot as she slept, forcing her to make do with one boot for a month. Peshkova spent three years at the front, accompanying wounded soldiers from the front to hospitals and trying to fight disease and starvation among the troops. She was wounded three times. Once, when the Germans moved into an area the Soviets held, Peshkova was separated from her unit and had to disguise herself. However, she could not discard her weapon because she knew the Soviet Army would execute her for losing it! Yet she made it back to her unit undetected. As the war dragged on, Peshkova was promoted to Sergeant Major and given political education duties further from the front. After the war, she was awarded the Order of the Red Star for bravery.

4. Susan Travers: French Foreign Legionnaire

Englishwoman Susan Travers was a socialite living in France when the war broke out. She trained as a nurse for the French Red Cross and became an ambulance driver. When France fell to the Nazis, she escaped to London via Finland and joined the Free French Forces. In 1941, Travers was sent with the French Foreign Legion as a driver to Syria and then to North Africa. Assigned to drive Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, she fell in love with him. In Libya, her unit was besieged by Rommel's Afrika Corps, but Travers refused to be evacuated with the other female personnel. After hiding for 15 days in sand pits, the unit decided to make a break at night. The enemy noticed the escaping convoy when a land mine went off. Driving the lead vehicle with Koenig, Travers took off at breakneck speed under machine gun fire and broke through the enemy lines, leading 2,500 troops to the safety of an Allied encampment hours later. Her car was full of bullet holes. Travers was promoted to General, and served in Italy, Germany, and France during the remainder of the war. She was wounded once during that period driving over a land mine.

After the war, Travers applied to become a an official member of the French Foreign Legion. She did not specify her sex on the application, and it was accepted -rubber-stamped by an officer who knew and admired her. Travers was the only woman ever to serve with the Legion as an official member, and was posted to Vietnam during the First Indo-China War. Some of her awards were the Légion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire. Travers waited until the year 2000, when she was 91 years old, to publish her autobiography Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion. By then, both her husband (whom she met after World War II) and Colonel Koenig (who was a married man during the war) had passed away.

5. Reba Whittle: POW Nurse

Lt. Reba Whittle was the only U.S. female soldier to be imprisoned as a POW in the European theater of war. Whittle was a flight nurse with the 813th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, and had logged over 500 hours. On a flight from England to France to pick up casualties in September of 1944, her plane went off course and was shot down over Aachen, Germany. The few survivors were taken prisoner. The Germans did not know what to do with Whittle, as she was their first female military POW -at least on the Western Front. In the East, many female Russian soldiers were interned as POWs and used for forced labor. Whittle, who was initially rejected by the Army Air Corps in 1941 for being underweight, was allowed to minister to the wounded in camp. A Swiss legation that negotiated POW transfers, mostly of wounded prisoners, discovered her in custody and began to arrange her release. Whittle was escorted by the German Red Cross away from the camp along with 109 male POWS on January 25th, 1945.

Whittle's status as a POW was undocumented by the U.S. military. She was awarded the Air Medal and a Purple Heart, and promoted to lieutenant, but was denied disability or POW retirement benefits. Her injuries kept her from flying, so she worked in an Army hospital in California until she left the service in 1946. Whittle applied for, and was denied, POW status and back pay for ten years. She finally accepted a cash settlement in 1955. While nurses who were imprisoned in Asia had received hero's receptions upon their release, Whittle's story was kept quiet by the Army and barely noticed by the media in the celebrations of the war's end. Whittle died of breast cancer in 1981. Her POW status was officially conferred by the military in 1983.

6. Eileen Nearne: British Spy

Eileen Nearne joined the Special Operations Executive in Britain as a radio operator. Two of her siblings also served the SOE. Only 23 years old, Nearne was dropped by parachute into occupied France to relay messages from the French resistance and to arrange weapons drops. She talked her way out of trouble several times, but was eventually arrested by the Nazis, tortured, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Yet Nearne stuck to her cover story. She was transferred to a labor camp and escaped during yet another transfer. Once again, Nearne talked her way out of trouble when confronted by the Gestapo and hid in a church until the area was liberated by the Americans.

After the war, Nearne was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French and was made a a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by King George VI. She suffered some psychological problems and lived a quiet life with her sister Jacqueline (also a British spy during the war) until Jacqueline's death in 1982. When Eileen Nearne died in 2010, her body was not discovered for several days, and her wartime exploits were only revealed after a search of her apartment uncovered her war medals. Nearne was then given a hero's funeral.

7. Ruby Bradley: POW Nurse

Colonel Ruby Bradley was a career Army nurse well before the war began. She was a hospital administrator on Luzon Island in the Philippines when the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor. Bradley hid in the hills with a doctor and another nurse when the Japanese overran the island. Turned over by locals, they were taken back to their former base, which had been turned into a prison camp. They once again went to work aiding the sick and injured, though with fewer supplies and hardly any equipment. Bradley spent over three years as a POW, performing surgery, delivering babies, smuggling supplies, and comforting the dying in the camps. When she was finally liberated by U.S. troops in 1945, she weighed a mere 84 pounds, down from her normal 110 pounds. You can read Bradley's own account of her imprisonment.

But wait -there's more! After the war, Bradley stayed with the Army and earned her bachelor's degree. In 1950 she went to Korea as the 8th Army's chief nurse, working at the front lines. During one medical evacuation just ahead of the enemy, she loaded all the wounded soldiers and was the last person to jump aboard the plane, just as her ambulance exploded from the shelling. Bradley remained in Korea through the entire conflict. Bradley's 34 medals and citations included two Legions of Merit and two Bronze Stars from the Army, which also promoted her to Colonel. She was also awarded the International Red Cross' highest honor, the Florence Nightingale Medal. Bradley retired from the Army in 1963, but continued to work as a supervising nurse in West Virginia for 17 years. When she died in 2002 (at age 94), she was buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery.

8. Krystyna Skarbek: Polish Spy

Krystyna Skarbek (later Christine Granville) was the daughter of a Polish Count and the granddaughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. Skarbek's second husband was a diplomat, and they were together in Ethiopia when World War II broke out. Skarbek signed up with Britain's Section D to return to Poland through Hungary and facilitate communications with the Allies. Impressed with the "flaming Polish patriot," the British intelligence service accepted her plan. Beginning in 1939, Skarbek worked to organize Polish resistance groups and smuggle Polish pilots out of the occupied nation. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, but faked a case of TB by biting her tongue until it bled. They let her go after hours of interrogation. Skarbek and her partner Andrzej Kowerski went to the British embassy and received new identities as Christine Granville and Andrew Kennedy. They were smuggled out of Poland through Yugoslavia to Turkey, where they were welcomed by the British.

In Cairo in 1944, Granville and Kennedy founded themselves persona non grata because the Polish group they had been working with, the Musketeers, had been compromised by German spies. Granville could not be sent back to Poland, and instead trained as a radio operator and paratrooper. After D-Day she was dropped into France, but her assigned resistance area was overrun with Germans, so she escaped, hiking 70 miles to safety. She then worked in the Alps to turn Axis fighters. Granville's success rate was almost supernatural and she took extraordinary risks to pull off further capers. The most famous was when she outed herself as a spy to French officials working for the Gestapo, and arranged a prisoner release by threats and promises of money. Granville and the prisoners made it out alive, which secured her reputation as a legendary spy.

After the war, Granville was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Medal, and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). However, Granville was at loose ends without the adrenaline rush of her wartime exploits. She did not return to Poland, as it was under Russian authority, but lived in Britain, Africa, and then Australia. Granville was murdered in 1952 by Dennis Muldowney, a stalker who had become obsessed with her. There was a rumor that Granville carried on a one-year affair with Ian Fleming, but there is no evidence to support it. However, she is considered to be the inspiration for at least two of his Bond girls.

9. Lyudmila Pavlichenko: Russian Sniper

Unlike many of the young girl snipers of the Soviet Army, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was an accomplished sharpshooter before joining the military. She was older than the others as well, and was in her fourth year of study at Kiev University when war broke out. The Russian Army sent around 2,000 trained female snipers to the front during the war only around 500 survived. Pavlichenko had by far the greatest war record of them all, with 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers. And that was accomplished by 1942! Pavlichenko was wounded by a mortar and pulled from the front. Because of her record, she was sent on a public relations tour to Canada and the United States to drum up support for the war effort and make an impression on the Allies. She was never sent back to the front, but served during the remainder of the war as a sniper trainer. Pavlichenko earned the title Hero of the Soviet Union. After the war, she completed her university degree and became a historian and served on the the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War.

10. Aleda Lutz: Flight Nurse

1st Lt. Aleda E. Lutz volunteered with the unit inaugurated by Elsie Ott (see #2), the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad, designed to carry wounded soldiers quickly away from the war front. Lutz flew 196 missions to evacuate more than 3,500 men. No other flight nurse logged as many hours as Lutz. She would have stretched that record of 814 hours out further, but in December of 1944, her C47 hospital plane picked up wounded soldiers from Lyon, Italy, and then crashed. There were no survivors. Lutz was the first woman ever awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, conferred posthumously. This was in addition to the Air Medal (earned four times), the Oak Leaf Cluster, the Red Cross Medal, and the Purple Heart. In 1990, the Veterans Administration Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan was named in her honor.

11. Noor Inayat Khan: Spy Princess

Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan had a particularly distinguished background. Her father was Indian Sufi master and musician Inayat Khan her mother was American Ora Ray Baker, the niece of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, and her paternal great-great-grandfather was the ruler of Kingdom of Mysore. Noor was born in Russia her younger siblings were born in England. She held a British passport, but lived in France when Germany invaded. The family was able to escape to England ahead of the Germans, and Noor Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The British intelligence agency SOE took her as a wireless operator and sent her to France in June of 1943. There, she transmitted information out of France by Morse code. She refused to quit, even as other radio operators were arrested. Khan was arrested in October by the German intelligence agency (SD) and fought them so fiercely that she was classified as "an extremely dangerous prisoner." A month of interrogation yielded no information about Khan's SOE activities, and she even sent a coded message about her compromised position (which the SOE ignored). However, the Germans found her notebooks, which gave them enough information to send false messages and lure more British spies to France and arrest. In November, Khan escaped briefly, but was caught and then kept in shackles for ten months. In September of 1944, Khan was transferred to Dachau, where she was immediately executed along with three other female SOE agents.

Khan was posthumously awarded the British George Cross, the French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The strange part of her story was that Khan was a Sufi Muslim pacifist of Indian origin. She opposed the British rule of India, and if it weren't for the Nazi invasion of Europe, might had fought against the British instead of for them.


Doris Miller

The story of Doris Miller has been glamorized in motion pictures, but few know the real story of the Black cook who became a hero during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Doris “Dorie” Miller was born on October 12, 1919 in Waco, Texas, the son of Connery and Henrietta Miller. They were sharecroppers who would eventually become subsistence farmers and thus the family was fairly poor. Doris was a big child, at 5′ 9:, 200 lbs. playing fullback on his high school football team. He was expelled from school due to engaging in numerous fights over racial issues. He worked on his father’s farm until he was 20 years old when he enlisted in the United States Navy in 1939. He served as a Mess Attendant, Third Class and became the ship’s cook when he was transferred to the USS West Virginia battleship. A mess attendant prepares and serves food to the officers and the crew, clears the tables and cleans the dishes and makes the bed and cleans the bedroom and bathrooms for the officers. After temporary duty on the USS Nevada at Secondary Battery Gunnery School, he returned to the USS West Virginia on August 3, 1940. At this point he stood 6′ 3″ and weighed over 200 lbs. Because of his size and strength, he competed in boxing competitions on the ships and became the Heavyweight champion of the West Virginia, an impressive feat considering the ship had a crew of approximately 2,000. He was advanced to Mess Attendant Second Class just before USS West Virginia was sent to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Dorie was awake at 6:00 AM on the West Virginia. He had volunteered as a room steward and made an extra five dollars each month providing wake-up services to duty officers, as well as doing their laundry, shining their shoes and making their beds. When the alarm for general quarters was sounded, he headed for his battle station, the anti-aircraft battery magazine amid ship. Unfortunately, the ship was under attack by more than 200 Japanese torpedo planes, bombers and fighters and a torpedo had destroyed his battle station. Because of his size and strength he was ordered to run across the deck to retrieve injured shipmates and carry them to the quarterdeck where they were protected, somewhat, from the attack. He was next ordered to come to the aid of the injured ship’s Captain, Mervyn Bennion. He rushed to the bridge to attempt to carry Bennion to safety but the Captain refused to leave his post (Bennion would die of his wounds).

Miller was next ordered to help Ensign Victor Delano and Frederic H. White load the #1 and #2 Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns. Delano expected Miller to load ammo into both guns but when he looked back around he saw that White had loaded both guns and was shocked to see Miller manning one of the guns and firing into the air at dive-bombing Japanese planes.

Despite having no training in operating the big guns, he bravely jumped into action. Miller later recounted: “It wasn’t hard. I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine. I had watched the others with these guns. I guess I fired her for about fifteen minutes. I think I got one of those Japanese planes. They were diving pretty close to us.” Later versions of the story had Miller shooting down four Japanese planes, but the truth is he probably didn’t hit any. During the time he was firing the gun only one Japanese plane was shot down. “One of the planes that he (Miller) was shooting at, and everyone else in the bay was shooting at, went down. He felt very pleased with that. And I don’t blame him. But there were a lot of other guys shooting at it also,” Victor Delano related in 1993. Added White, “I did see Miller shooting, but I would term it rather wild, so I doubt that he hit anything. I certainly did not see him shoot down a plane.”

In fact, according to official records, the USS West Virginia did not have a record of anyone on board having shot down any planes that day. Nonetheless, the attempt by anyone on board to fire at the incoming planes certainly made it more difficult to for the Japanese to press their attack. White later ordered Miller to help pull sailors out of the water and to safety. Eventually, because of the severe damage from explosions, the West Virginia began flooding and everyone was ordered to abandon ship. Of the 1,541 men on West Virginia during the attack, 130 were killed and 52 wounded. The ship had been struck by nine Japanese torpedoes.

Admiral Chester Nimitz presenting the Navy Cross to Dorris Miller

Reports of the attack referenced the actions of an unknown Negro sailor. When he was identified as Doris Miller, Senator James Mead of New York introduced a Senate Bill seeking to award Dorie the Medal of Honor, the United States highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. On April 1, 1942, Doris Miller was commended by the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. The commendation cited his “distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard of his personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller despite enemy strafing and bombing, and in the face of serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety and later manned and operated a machine gun until ordered to leave the bridge.” On May 27, 1942, he was presented the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief for the Pacific Fleet on board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise for his extraordinary courage in battle. The citation read: “For distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety… in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun.. until ordered to leave the bridge.

“This marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.” – Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

Doris Miller Speaking on a War Bonds Tour

He was reassigned to USS Indianapolis on December 13, 1941 and his rank was raised to Mess Attendant First Class on June 1, 1942. Later that month the Pittsburgh Courier called for him to be honored like some of the white war heroes and allowed to return home for a war bond tour. He arrived at Pearl Harbor on November 23rd and was ordered on a war bond tour while still attached to USS Indianapolis. Over the course of the next few months he gave talks in Oakland, California, in his home town of Waco, Texas and in Dallas, Texas. He also spoke to the first graduating class of Negro sailors from Great Lakes Naval Training Station, in Chicago, Illinois.

On June 1, 1943, Miller received another promotion, that of Petty Officer, Ship′s Cook Third Class and he was reassigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. On November 24, 1943, during the the Battle of Tarawa, a single torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-175 struck the escort carrier near the stern. The aircraft bomb magazine detonated a few moments later, and the warship was sunk within a few minutes. There were only 272 survivors and the rest of the crew was listed as “presumed dead.” On December 7, 1943, exactly two years after his courageous effort during the Pearl Harbor attack, Miller′s parents were notified their son’s death.

Doris Miller Recruitment Poster

Many petitioned for Miller to receive the Medal of Honor for his acts on December 7, 1941, and while he never received the award, he has been honored repeatedly over the years.

In addition to the Navy Cross, Doris was entitled to the Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. Commissioned on 30 June 1973, USS Miller (FF-1091), a Knox-class frigate, was named in honor of Doris Miller. The War Department issued a recruitment poster adorned with his portrait entitled “above and beyond the call of duty“. He has been portrayed in a number of movies including 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! in which he was portrayed by Elven Havard and 2001’s Pearl Harbor, in which he was portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr. The Doris Miller Foundation was founded in 1947, to give an annual award to the individual or group considered outstanding in the field of race relations. In February 2010, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his name and on June 30, 1973 the USS Miller (FF-1091), a Knox-class frigate, was commissioned in his honor and he has had numerous schools and community buildings named after him. On January 20, 2020, the United States Navy named an aircraft carrier in honor of Miller. The Gerald R. Ford-class carrier named after Miller will be deployed in major combat operations, crisis response and humanitarian relief. According to Popular Mechanics “The reasons for the naming are twofold: to honor the U.S. Navy’s enlisted sailors and their heroes and to honor the contributions of African American sailors. The USS Miller will be the first aircraft carrier in the history of the U.S. Navy to be named for either.”

Doris Miller is one of those individuals whose lives are forever etched in stone because of his actions during a moment of crisis. Though his time on Earth was short, history has remembered him for his valor and his dedication to his country.


The Dorie Miller story from the Vince Sanders’ “Documents of Truth”


Ten Important Supreme Court Decisions in Black History

Related Links

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Decreed a slave was his master's property and African Americans were not citizens struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional.

Civil Rights Cases (1883)

A number of cases are addressed under this Supreme court decision. Decided that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (the last federal civil rights legislation until the Civil Rights Act of 1957) was unconstitutional. Allowed private sector segregation.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

The Court stated that segregation was legal and constitutional as long as "facilities were equal"?the famous "separate but equal" segregation policy.

Powell v. Alabama (1932)

The Supreme Court overturned the "Scottsboro Boys'" convictions and guaranteed counsel in state and federal courts.

Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)

The justices ruled that a court may not constitutionally enforce a "restrictive covenant" which prevents people of certain race from owning or occupying property.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Reversed Plessy v. Ferguson "separate but equal" ruling. "[S]egregation [in public education] is a denial of the equal protection of the laws."

Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964)

This case challenged the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court ruled that the motel had no right "to select its guests as it sees fit, free from governmental regulation."

Loving v. Virginia (1967)

This decision ruled that the prohibition on interracial marriage was unconstitutional. Sixteen states that still banned interracial marriage at the time were forced to revise their laws.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)

The decision stated that affirmative action was unconstitutional in cases where the affirmative action program used a quota system.

Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)

The decision upheld affirmative action's constitutionality in education, as long it employeed a "highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file" and did not consider race as a factor in a "mechanical way."


Seventy-Five Years Ago, the Military’s Only All-Black Female Band Battled the War Department and Won

An estimated crowd of 100,000 people clogged the intersections in Chicago’s central business district in May of 1945 for a war bond rally, one of several marking the War Department drive that week. Police had traffic stopped for blocks approaching the stage at State and Madison Streets, and reporters noted sales clerks and customers hanging out of store windows to catch a glimpse of any famous performers or war heroes who might arrive.

Former prisoners of war appeared on stage, and the famed flag-raisers of Iwo Jima pushed war bonds to finance the war in the Pacific as a 28-member military band played patriotic music. That group, the women of the 404th Armed Service Forces (ASF) band, were the only all-black female band in U.S. military history.

During the war, all-women military bands rallied hearts—and raised millions in war bonds. The musicians numbered among the Army’s first female personnel, a distinction that branded them as pioneers to some and prostitutes to others. Each company endured societal bias, but only one, the 404th, had to battle racial stigma as well. Seventy-five years ago this year, the 28 musicians forced the War Department’s hand in a victory for civil rights.

In May 1941, citing the need for military personnel, Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Rogers introduced a bill that would allow women to join the Army in a noncombatant role but with the same rank and status as men. Even though the Army Nurse Corps had existed as a uniformed military “organization” since 1901, the military did not give women equal pay, rank or benefits. Rogers’ legislation was designed to ameliorate that disparity.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall encouraged Rogers to amend the bill. At first opposed to women in the military, he recognized the need for additional personnel in case of emergency, and on December 7, 1941, one arrived with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “It is important that as quickly as possible we have a declared national policy in this matter,” he later wrote in a statement to Congress. “Women certainly must be employed in the overall effort of this nation.”

A few months later, on May 15, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed H.R. 6293, establishing the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), but it did not give women the hoped-for military status. In exchange for their non-combatant “essential services”—administrative, clerical, and cooking skills among others—up to 150,000 women would receive pay, food, living quarters and medical care, but not life insurance, medical coverage, death benefits, or the prisoner of war protection covered under international agreements.

More than 30,000 women applied for the first WAAC officer training class of 440 candidates. To qualify, women had to be between 21 and 45 years old, with strong aptitude scores, good references, and professional, skilled experience. Mothers and wives were welcome to apply, as were African-Americans.

For decades, the N.A.A.C.P. had argued for integrating the military. During World War I, segregated units of black soldiers served in largely non-combatant roles in the Army, and as the only armed service branch to admit African-Americans by the start of World War II, the Army insisted upon segregation. “The Army had argued [to the NAACP] it could not undertake a program for such a major social change while it was in the midst of a war,” writes military historian Bettie J. Morden in The Women’s Army Corps, 1945-1948.

The Army told the N.A.A.C.P. that 10.6 percent of WAAC officers and enlisted women would be black (the approximate percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. population at the time). Even as the servicewomen would have segregated housing, service clubs and basic training, the Army said black women would serve “in the same military occupational specialties as white women.” Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women and good friend to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, recruited black women along with the N.A.A.C.P. with the message that military service was a way to serve one’s country and further the fight for equality.

On July 20, 1942, the first group of officer candidates—white and black alike—arrived at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, home of the first WAAC Training Center and Officer Candidate School.

Selection for its geographical location in the center of the country, Fort Des Moines held significance in African-American military history a former cavalry post, it had hosted black infantrymen in 1903, and in 1917, held the first officer training for black men.

Somewhere in England, Maj. Charity Adams Earley and Capt. Abbie N. Campbell inspect the first African-American members of the Women's Army Corps assigned to overseas service. (National Archives, 6888th Central Postal Directory Bn. February 15, 1945. Holt. 111-SC-200791)

Charity Adams Earley, who would become one of only two African-American women to hold the rank of major during World War II, was one of the women who passed through Fort Des Moines’ stone gates on July 20—a muggy, rainy midsummer’s day. The facilities, renovated horse stables, still smelled like animals. Mud covered the grounds, and as they walked among the red brick buildings, the women mingled. In her memoir One Woman’s Army, Earley described the camaraderie that had had built on the way to Iowa:

“Those of us who had traveled from Fort Hayes [Ohio] together had some feeling of closeness because we had started out together on our adventure: race, color, age, finances, social class, all of these had been pushed aside on our trip to Fort Des Moines.”

She would soon become disillusioned. After the candidates’ first meal, they marched to a reception area, where a young, red-haired second lieutenant pointed to one side of the room and ordered, “Will all the colored girls move to this side?”

The group fell silent. Then officers called the white women by name to their quarters. “Why could not the ‘colored girls’ be called by name to go to their quarters rather than be isolated by race?” Earley asked herself.

After protests from Bethune and other civil rights leaders, officer candidate school became integrated for women and men in 1942, serving as the Army’s first integration experiment. Bethune traveled often among the women’s training centers – to Fort Des Moines at first and then to four other WAAC locations that opened in the southern and eastern United States. She toured the properties, spoke with officers and servicewomen, and shared discrimination concerns with Walter White, executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., and Roosevelt herself.

One immediate problem was job placement. After graduation from basic training, enlisted women were supposed to receive assignments in the baking, clerical, driving, or medical fields. But jobs didn’t open as quickly as they could have, and Fort Des Moines became overcrowded. A large part of the problem was the attitude of soldiers and commanding officers who didn’t want to relinquish positions to women, and the problem was magnified for black officers.

In “Blacks in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II: The Experiences of Two Companies,” military historian Martha S. Putney writes that then-Major Harriet M. West, the first black woman to achieve the rank of major in the wartime women’s corps, toured posts “to see if she could persuade field commanders to request black units.” Most of the men, she found, “talked only about laundry units—jobs not on the War Department’s authorized lists for [WAACs.]”

Historian Sandra Bolzenius argues in Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took on the Army During World War II that the Army never fully intended to utilize black services. “While the [WAAC] claimed to offer opportunities to all recruits,” she writes, “its leaders focused on those who fit the white, middle-class prototype of feminine respectability.” N.A.A.C.P. correspondence from 1942-1945 are full of letters from frustrated black servicewomen with stories of being passed over for opportunities given to whites.

In July 1943, the Chicago branch of the N.A.A.C.P. telegrammed White of the complaints they received. “Though many of the Negro personnel completed all required training weeks ago, they are kept at Des Moines doing almost nothing. On the other hand, the white personnel is sent out immediately upon completion of required training.”

White forwarded the complaint to Oveta Culp Hobby, the 37-year-old appointed head of the WAACs, who as a southerner and wife of a former Texas governor, was far from the N.A.A.C.P.’s preferred selection for the job. She responded the following week: “Negro WAACs are being shipped to field jobs as fast as their skills and training match the jobs to be filled.”

Stories of stagnant movement affected recruitment of black and white women—as did a slander campaign branding WAACs as organized prostitutes. After investigating the sources of defamatory stories, Army Military Intelligence identified most authors as male military personnel who either feared WAACs or “had trouble getting dates.”

Those women who had begun military duties excelled in their work, and the Army needed more WAACs trained in medical support. To boost recruitment, and to solve administrative problems, on July 1, 1943, FDR signed legislation that turned the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), giving women military status and rank.


By 1944, then-Maj. Charity Adams had become the African-American training supervisor at Fort Des Moines. One of her favorite parts of the job was nurturing the military’s first and only all-black female band.


“Society in general doesn’t understand the value of the military band for men and women at war,” says Jill Sullivan, a military band historian at Arizona State University, who asserts that military bands bring communities together, serve as entertainment, and rally morale and patriotism. Fort Des Moines started the military’s first all-female band in 1942 to replace a reassigned men’s band, but also, says Sullivan, to honor military tradition during wartime.

“What [the War Department] found out was that the women were a novelty,” says Sullivan. The first WAC band (officially the 400th Army Service Forces Band) became an instant hit and a “showpiece for WAC women.” In addition to giving local concerts, the all-white 400th ASF Band toured across North America on war bond drives, sharing stages with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and actor/officer Ronald Reagan. When the second WAAC center opened up in Daytona Beach, Florida, musicians from Fort Des Moines transferred there to start another band, the 401st. Three other WAAC bands would later form.

Repeatedly, black male officers encouraged black women to try out for the popular WAC band at Fort Des Moines. “Regardless of their experience,” Earley remembered in One Woman’s Army, “whether they were private- and public-school music teachers, teaching and performing majors in college and graduate school, amateur and professional performers, no Negroes who auditioned were found to be qualified to play with the white band.”

Letters from several musicians place blame for discrimination on one man: fort commandant Col. Frank McCoskrie.

“Colonel McCoskrie,” wrote Rachel Mitchell, a French horn player, “said that the two races would never mix as long as he was on the post.”

When Adams realized no black woman would be allowed in the white band, she pushed for the women to have their own. In fall of 1943, McCoskrie approached Sgt. Joan Lamb, director of the 400th, and made it clear that though it was not his wish, he needed her to start an “all-Negro company” in order to quiet complaints of discrimination among black servicewomen and civil rights leaders. The band wouldn’t survive, he said, unless it could play a concert in eight weeks.

Working with Adams, Lamb began interviewing interested black women. Auditions were not possible, as only a few of the women had played an instrument before. According to Sullivan, music education programs didn’t begin in public schools until the 1930s, and that was in white schools mostly. Poor, black schools, especially in the rural South, didn’t even have access to instruments. One woman though, Leonora Hull, had two degrees in music. Another had sung opera professionally, and several had been in choirs. Lamb selected an initial 19 women “on a subjective basis of probable success.”


“What we were doing was an ‘open’ secret, unrecognized but not forbidden,” wrote Adams. “We ordered band equipment and supplies as recreational equipment.”


McCoskrie’s eight-week clock would not begin until the instruments arrived. While they waited, the women learned to read music by singing together. Sergeant Lamb made Hull a co-teacher, and asked the all-white band (which became known as WAC Band #1 with the all-black band known as WAC Band #2) if any members could help instruct. Ten volunteered. Several mornings every week, Lamb and the white musicians would walk to the black barracks and give private lessons. From lunchtime into the night, the black musicians would rehearse their music whenever they could.

On December 2, 1943, the all-African-American band played a concert for McCoskrie and other officers and exceeded expectations. “He was outraged!” wrote Rachel Mitchell in a letter. “I think we enraged the Colonel because he gave the officers and the band impossible duties and time to complete them.” As the band continued, Lt. Thelma Brown, a black officer, became its conductor.

As they honed their musical skills, the band performed in parades and concerts, often stepping in for the all-white band when it was on a war bond drive. They played as a swing band at the black service club, where white musicians would sneak in to hear them play jazz, and incorporated dancing and singing into stage performances. Adams saw to it that word of the first all-black female band spread. Bethune visited, as did opera star Marian Anderson. Adams accompanied the women on tours throughout Iowa and the Midwest. Once or twice a day, they set up bandstands and attracted interracial audiences.

“They made us feel like celebrities,” wrote Clementine Skinner, a trumpet and French horn player. “Many of the young girls sought our autographs as if we were famous individuals.” Mitchell said the “soul-moving” experience of playing with the band “had us more determined to make people see us.” And more people did—at concerts for churches, hospitals and community organizations.

On July 15, 1944, the band had its most high-profile appearance yet: the opening parade of the 34th N.A.A.C.P. conference in Chicago. On South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive), in front of thousands of onlookers and fans, the members of the military’s first all-black female band marched, stopping to play on a bandstand at State and Madison Streets (one year before the Seventh War Bond drive).

But they wouldn’t play for their conductor, Lt. Thelma Brown, again.

Prior to the band’s departure for Chicago, McCoskrie told Brown that the War Department was not going to continue funding the personnel for two bands. He ordered her to tell her women of the band’s deactivation. Risking insubordination, Brown told McCoskrie that he could inform them when they got back.

“She refused since this was to be our finest appearance,” wrote Mitchell. “She would not burst our bubble.”

On July 21, 1944, fresh from their exhilarating rallies in Chicago, the band faced McCoskrie, who shared the news with them. They were to turn in their instruments and their music immediately, and they would be stripped of their band merits.

The reaction in the black community was immediate.

“Our officers urged us to fight for our existence,” Leonora Hull recalled, “and told us that this could best be done by asking our friends and relatives to write letters of protest to powerful persons.”

The women wrote nearly 100 letters to their families, communities and civic leaders. They wrote to the black press, to Bethune, to Hobby, to White at the N.A.A.C.P. and to the Roosevelts themselves. Concerned that the protests could lead to a court martial if the women were found to be complaining on the job, Skinner took a trolley, and not a military shuttle, to mail the letters from town instead of the base post. Headlines across the country picked up the news. “Negroes throughout the nation have been asked to join in protest to President Roosevelt in an effort to have the recently inactivated Negro WAC band re-organized,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.

N.A.A.C.P. records indicate that White and others pointed out “that deactivating the band would be a serious blow to the morale of Negro WACs which is already low because of failure to assign colored WAC officers to duties comparable to their rank and training.” In a letter to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, White wrote, “We submit that original refusal to permit Negro WACs to play in the regular Fort Des Moines band was undemocratic and unwise.” The N.A.A.C.P. requested that the musicians be absorbed into the 400th Army band.

The Army reversed its decision, a little over a month later. On September 1, 1944, WAC Band #2 became the 404th Army Service Forces WAC band. The musicians, however, didn’t have instruments. Theirs had been taken away, with some ending up in the hands of the players of the 400th. It would take several weeks for new instruments to arrive, and in the meantime, the women had to serve their country somehow. Hull and others had to retake basic training classes and complete “excessive amounts of unchallenging KP and guard duties.” Although the only thing they could do together was sing, the musicians continued to meet. Their instruments came in October, and furious practice began anew. By then, they had learned that Brown would not continue as conductor.

“She feared our progress might suffer from the powers that be trying to get back at her for all her efforts to get us back together,” explained Mitchell in a letter.

The following May, the 404th traveled again to Chicago for the Seventh War Bond Drive. They were only supposed to perform in the opening day parade, but the reception was so effusive that organizers contacted Washington and asked if band could stay for the rest of the week. Together, the 404th collected monies throughout the city’s black neighborhoods and performed at high schools, in the Savoy Ballroom, on the platform at State and Madison Streets, and at Soldier Field, sharing a stage with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Collectively, the Seventh War Bond tour raised over $26 billion across the nation in six weeks for the U.S. Treasury.

News of the Japanese surrender in 1945 foretold the end of the band, and the 404th was deactivated along with the WAC program in December 1945. During the three years of the WAC program existed during World War II, approximately 6500 African American women served. At the end of 1944, 855 black servicewomen followed Major Adams overseas in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-black Women’s Army Corps unit to serve overseas. Stationed in Birmingham, England, the battalion was tasked with organizing a warehouse of stockpiled mail from America to servicemen abroad. Within months, they redirected correspondence to more than 7 million soldiers.

In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces, and General Eisenhower persuaded Congress to pass the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act, which reestablished the Women’s Army Corps as a permanent part of the Army. The military also reactivated the 400th ASF band as the 14th WAC Band, the legacy of the five World War II WAC bands, one of which helped lead the way on racial desegregation.

About Carrie Hagen

Carrie Hagen is a writer based in Philadelphia. She is the author of We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping that Changed America, and is currently writing a book about the Vigilance Committee.


Seven Famous Women Veterans

In honor of Women's History Month, Military.com highlights seven female veterans who played large roles in either the history of the U.S. armed forces or later in civilian life. Ranging from the Civil War to the present day and representing all services, these women broke barriers, made a difference, and became role models for all future generations.

Bea Arthur

Best known for her roles on the popular television shows "Maude" and "The Golden Girls," the late Bea Arthur was also once a truck driver in the Marine Corps. She was one of the first members of the Women's Reserve and, aside from driving military trucks, Arthur was also a typist.

She enlisted at the age of 21 in early 1943 under her original name, Bernice Frankel. Appraisals from her her enlistment interviews described her conversation as “argumentative” and her attitude and manner as “over aggressive” -- fitting, given the cantankerous characters she would play later in life. In a handwritten note, the Marine interviewer remarked, “Officious--but probably a good worker -- if she has her own way!”

Arthur was stationed at Marine Corps and Navy air stations in Virginia and North Carolina during her career, and was promoted from corporal to sergeant to staff sergeant. She was honorably discharged in September 1945, married a fellow Marine (Private Robert Aurthur) shortly afterwards, and changed her name to Bea Arthur before enrolling in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York in 1947.

After a successful Broadway career that included a Tony award, Arthur made a splash as "Cousin Maude" in the classic TV series "All in the Family" in the early '70s, and went on to star in her own sit-com, and cement her celebrity fame and status as a gay icon in the long-running show "Golden Girls."

Army Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody

The first woman to serve as a four-star general in both the Army and the U.S. armed forces, Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody joined the Army in 1974, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Women's Army Corps in 1975. Her first assignment was as supply platoon leader, 226th Maintenance Company (Forward, Direct Support), 100th Supply and Services Battalion (Direct Support), Fort Sill, Okla. Her biggest impact was as commander of the Army Materiel Command, or AMC, one of the largest commands in the Army, employing more than 69,000 employees across all 50 states and 145 countries.

"It was Ann's most recent role, as commander of the AMC, in which she unified global logistics in a way [that has never] been done," said Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno . "She capitalized AMC's fundamental logistics functions to maximize the efficiency and services they provided of supply, maintenance, contact support, research and development, base and installation support, and deployment and distribution.

She connected AMC not only to the Army, but ensured the joint force was always ready and supplied as well." "From the very first day that I put my uniform on, right up until this morning, I know there is nothing I would have rather done with my life," she said. "Thank you for helping me make this journey possible."

At her retirement ceremony in 2012, Dunwoody said, "Over the last 38 years I have had the opportunity to witness women Soldiers jump out of airplanes, hike 10 miles, lead men and women, even under the toughest circumstances," she said. "And over the last 11 years I've had the honor to serve with many of the 250,000 women who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan on battlefields where there are no clear lines, battlefields where every man and woman had to be a rifleman first. And today, women are in combat, that is just a reality. Thousands of women have been decorated for valor and 146 have given their lives. Today, what was once a band of brothers has truly become a band of brothers and sisters."

Grace Murray Hopper

Known as "Amazing Grace," Commodore Hopper's importance in U.S. naval history is apparent everywhere you turn: a destroyer was named after her (USS Hopper, DDG-70), as was the Cray XE6 "Hopper" supercomputer. As founder of the COBOL programming language, a precursor to many of the software code approaches of today, her work is legendary among computer scientists and mathematicians.

In 1943, during World War II, she joined the United States Naval Reserves. She was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project. There she became the third programmer of the world's first large-scale computer called the Mark I. When she saw it, all she could think about was taking it apart and figuring it out. "That was an impressive beast. She was fifty-one feet long, eight feet high, and five feet deep," said Hopper.

She mastered the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III. While trying to repair the Mark I she discovered a moth caught in a relay. She taped the moth in the log book and from that coined the phrase "a bug in the computer". During her career she she mastered the UNIVAC I, the first large-scale electronic computer, and created a program that translated symbolic math codes into machine language. This breakthrough allowed programmers to store codes on magnetic tape and re-call them when they were needed -- essentially the first compiler.

In 1966, Hopper retired from the Naval Reserves as a Commander, but was called back to active duty one year later at the Navy's request, to help standardize its computer programs and their languages. She was promoted to Captain in 1973 by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations. And in 1977, she was appointed special advisor to Commander, Naval Data Automation Command (NAVDAC), where she stayed until she retired.

In 1983, a bill was introduced by Rep. Philip Crane (D-Ill.) who said, "It is time the Navy recognized the outstanding contributions made by this officer recalled from retirement over a decade and a half ago and promote her to the rank of Commodore." Rep. Crane became interested in Hopper after seeing her March 1983 60 Minutes interview. He'd never met Hopper, but after speaking with several people, was convinced she was due the added status of being a flag officer. The bill was approved by the House, and at the age of 76, she was promoted to Commodore by special Presidential appointment. Her rank was elevated to rear admiral in November 1985, making her one of few women admirals in the history of the United States Navy.

By the time of her death in 1992, Hopper was renowned as a mentor and a giant in her field, with honoree doctorates from over 30 universities. She was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Eileen Collins

As a young child, Eileen Collins loved to sit with her dad in the family car and watch airplanes take off and land. The roar of the powerful engines and the grace of the aircraft as they seemed to float in the air always held excitement and enchantment for the young daughter of Irish immigrants. That love of flying would lead the Air Force colonel to be honored as the first woman to command a space shuttle mission, STS-93, in July of 1999, and place the NASA astronaut into the history books.

Colonel Collins joined the Air Force in 1979 and served as a T-38 flight instructor until 1982. From 1983 to 1985 she was a C-141 Starlifter aircraft commander and instructor pilot. She was assistant professor of mathematics and T-41 instructor pilot at the Air Force Academy from 1986 to 1989 and graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School in 1990.

While attending the Test Pilot School, Collins was selected by NASA for the astronaut program and became an astronaut in July 1991. In 1995 Col. Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle and in 1999 she was the first woman shuttle commander. She has over 5,000 hours in 30 different types of aircraft and has spent over 537 hours in space.

"I was very excited and happy," said Collins, who applied for both a pilot and mission specialist slot with NASA. "But even though I'll remember that day for the rest of my life, it really didn't sink in until I graduated. I knew that there had never been a woman shuttle pilot before. Now, I'd be the first."

After four successful shuttle missions, Collins retired in 2006. "I do miss being in space," she said, "but I flew four times, and all four missions were very busy because you're constantly working and under stress. You have a mission your boss is the people of the country and you don't want to disappoint the people. Usually toward the end of the mission, you can let your hair down a little bit because the primary mission's done and everything is put away. That was when you could put your face against the glass, stretch out your arms, and you don't even see the ship around you, just the Earth below, and you feel like you're flying over the planet."

Harriet Tubman

One of the most celebrated heroines in American history, Harriet Tubman is best known for ushering slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. But not everyone knows that Tubman, who escaped slavery in 1849, set up a vast espionage ring for the Union during the Civil War. She served as a cook, a nurse, and even a spy for the Union during the Civil War, and also was the first woman in American history to lead a military expedition.

In one of her most dramatic and dangerous roles, Tubman helped Colonel James Montgomery plan a raid to free slaves from plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. Early on the morning of June 1, 1863, three gunboats carrying several hundred male soldiers along with Harriet Tubman set out on their mission.

Tubman had gathered key information from her scouts about the Confederates' positions, and knew where they were hiding along the shore. She also found out they had placed torpedoes -- barrels filled with gunpowder -- in the water. Ultimately, her group freed about 750 slaves -- men, women, children, and babies -- and did not lose one soldier in the attack.

Reporting on the raid to Secretary of War Stanton, Brigadier General Rufus Saxton said, “This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid, and under whose inspiration. it was originated and conducted.” Sadly, Tubman was paid only $200 during her three years of service and was denied a pension for her spy work.

Elsie S. Ott

During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps pioneered military medical care through the development of air evacuations of wounded personnel. Contributing to this was 2nd Lt. Elsie S. Ott, a flight nurse on the first intercontinental air evacuation flight that demonstrated the potential of air evacuation. Born in 1913 in Smithtown, N.Y, Ott attended Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing in New York City after completing high school.

After several positions in area hospitals, Ott joined the Army Nurse Corps in September 1941. She was commissioned as a second lieutenant soon after and had assignments to Louisiana and Virginia before being sent to Karachi, India. It was during this assignment that she would participate in the first air evacuation. Originating from Karachi, India, patients were evacuated to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Ott was assigned to the flight with only 24 hours' notice. Prior to this she had no flying experience and had never flown before. She gathered blankets, sheets and pillows for the trip, but the only medical equipment available to her was nothing more than a first aid kit. No medical professional screened the patients who were to fly with Ott, and she and a sergeant with a medical background were the only people on board to care for patients.

The plane left Karachi with five wounded personnel Jan. 17, 1943. Of those five, two were paralyzed from the waist down, one suffered from tuberculosis, another with glaucoma and the fifth was suffering manic-depressive psychosis. After stops along the way for refueling, the plane reached its destination nearly a week after beginning -- normally a three month trip by ship.

Ott knew that her report on the trip would be crucial for further planning, and she immediately sat down to make notes for future flights. Among the suggestions she listed were the need for oxygen, more wound dressing supplies, extra coffee and blankets. She also noted that wearing a skirt was impractical for this kind of duty.

Two months later, Ott received the first U.S. Air Medal, the first given to a woman in the U.S. Army, for her role in the evacuation flight. She would later be promoted to captain before being discharged in 1946. Nearly 20 years later in 1965, Ott was selected to christen a new type of air ambulance: the C-9 Nightingale.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Union soldiers during the Civil War knew a comrade known as Franklin Flint Thompson, but in reality Thomspon was really a woman -- Sarah Emma Edmonds -- and one of the few females known to have served during the Civil War. Edmonds was born in Canada in 1841, but desperate to escape an abusive father and forced marriage, moved to Flint, Michigan in 1856, where she discovered that life was easier when she dressed as a man. Compelled to join the military out of sense of duty, she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a male field nurse.

As "Franklin Flint Thompson" Edmonds participated in several battles the took place during the Maryland Campaign of 1862, which included Second Battles of Manassas and Antietam. As a field nurse she would be dealing with mass casualties, especailly at Antietam which is known as one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. She is also said to have served as a Union spy and infiltrated the Confederate army several times, although there is no official record of it.

One of her alleged aliases was as a Southern sympathizer named Charles Mayberry. Another was as a black man named Cuff, for which she disguised herself using wigs and silver nitrate to dye her skin. And yet another was as Bridget O'Shea, an Irish peddler selling soap and apples.

Malaria eventually forced Edmonds to give up her military career, since she knew she would be discovered if she went to a military hospital and her being listed as a deserter upon leaving made it impossible for her to return after she recovered. Nevertheless, she still continued serving her new country, again as a nurse, though now as a female one at a hospital for soldiers in Washington, D.C.

In 1865, Edmonds published her experiences in the bestselling "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army," and went on to marry and have children. But her heroic contributions to the Civil War were not forgotten and she was awarded an honorable discharge from the military, a government pension, and admittance to the Grand Army of the Republic as its only female member.


The Black Female Battalion That Stood Up to a White Male Army

The unit was set up to determine the value Black women brought to the military. They ultimately ran the fastest mail service in the European Theater during World War II.

Major Adams addresses members of the Six Triple Eight in February 1945. Credit. By National Archives

By Christina Brown Fisher

The latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series from The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war, looks at the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the largest unit of Black servicewomen to ever deploy overseas.

In January 1945, a C-54 cargo plane carrying a group of young Army officers departed an Air Transport Command terminal in Washington for war-torn Europe. Among the passengers was a 26-year-old major named Charity Adams, who was quietly making history as the first African-American commanding officer in the Women’s Army Corps to be deployed to a theater of war. As the plane ascended over the Atlantic, she still wasn’t sure where she was headed or what she would be doing there. Her orders, marked “Secret,” were to be unsealed in flight. When she opened the envelope, the documents revealed only that her destination was somewhere in the British Isles she would be briefed on the particulars of the mission once on the ground.

A couple of weeks later, Adams stood on a windswept parade field in Birmingham, England, addressing a formation of hundreds of Black soldiers in khaki-skirted uniforms. She had been placed in command of a battalion that would soon number 855 women. She could see that many were scared and tired, still reeling from a treacherous 11-day journey from the United States by sea spent dodging torpedoes and German U-boats. Groans rippled through the ranks as Adams explained that they would begin work immediately. As the newly created 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, their mission was neither glamorous nor particularly thrilling. The work would be grueling, the hours long, and what little sleep they were allotted would be prone to interruption by air raids. Progress would be measured by the depletion of undelivered mail they had been summoned to England to sort out. With the war now at its bloody peak, mail was indispensable for morale, but delivering it had become a towering logistical challenge. The backlog, piled haphazardly in cavernous hangars, amounted to more than 17 million letters and packages addressed to Allied military personnel scattered across Europe.

Despite her can-do attitude, Adams believed that she and her troops had been set up for failure. Before the formation of the Six Triple Eight, as the battalion was known, it was unfathomable that a unit composed entirely of Black women would be posted overseas and trusted with such a monumental task. The Six Triple Eight was an experiment — a pass-fail test to determine the value Black women brought to the military. Years of unyielding pressure from civil rights activists, including the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, had convinced the War Department to give them a shot, but those who strongly opposed their inclusion in the ranks expected to be validated by seeing them fail. “The eyes of the public would be upon us, waiting for one slip in our conduct or performance,” Adams later recalled in her memoir. She knew that simply getting the job done wouldn’t be enough. The Six Triple Eight would need to not only pass the test but also, as Adams wrote, prove to “be the best WAC unit ever sent into a foreign theater.”

A pastor’s daughter from Columbia, S.C., Adams dropped out of graduate school to join the war effort in the summer of 1942, after the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (W.A.A.C.) announced that it was accepting 40 Black women into its first officer-candidate school. Black civic leaders were calling for African-American men and women to volunteer for military service and literally fight for equal rights overseas as Adams soon learned, however, the arbitrary constraints of Jim Crow applied even in matters of national security. At the ceremony that culminated the W.A.A.C. officer course, the candidates were commissioned as third officers, equivalent to Army second lieutenants, in alphabetical order by last name. Though Adams topped the list, she watched all the white candidates cross the stage before her name was called and she officially became the first Black woman ever commissioned in the corps.

More than 6,500 Black women ultimately served in the auxiliary corps during the war, as both officers and enlisted women. They came from all over the country, many in search of opportunities unavailable to them in the civilian sector. The Six Triple Eight veteran Elizabeth Barker Johnson quit housekeeping to become a soldier. She hadn’t realized that military service was even an option for her until a pamphlet for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps landed on her doorstep in Elkin, N.C. “There was a picture of Uncle Sam, and he was pointing a finger,’” recalled Johnson, 100. “It said, ‘Uncle Sam wants you.’ So I picked it up and looked at it. I read some of the information, and after I’d finished reading, I said, ‘Well, maybe you just got me.’ ”

Johnson completed basic training at Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky and then became a truck driver — a job not typically held by African-American women in the 1940s. But for many Black servicewomen, the Army proved hardly less oppressive than the places they signed up to escape. Some commanders simply refused to allow African-Americans onto their posts, and those who did often assigned them menial tasks, like cleaning or handling supplies. Overseas postings were usually not an option, even though white servicewomen began deploying to Europe and the Pacific promptly after the corps’s creation.

With American forces stretched across multiple continents, front-line commanders were beginning to wake up to the pitfalls of institutionalized racism. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted an Army that reflected the racial breakdown of the United States. “We are giving Negro troops equal status in the military field,” he told reporters in London in August 1942, with numbers commensurate with their share of the total population. Eisenhower was less progressive when it came to gender, however. At that same news conference, he announced a plan to send Black members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to England “to perform duties such as car driving and secretarial work and also to provide companionship for the thousands of Negro troops” deployed there. The W.A.A.C. director, Oveta Culp Hobby, replied with a firmly worded announcement that Black women would be posted overseas to do the important wartime jobs that they’d been trained for, not to be anybody’s companions.

Plans to deploy a large unit of Black servicewomen wouldn’t be seriously floated again until late in 1944, more than a year after the W.A.A.C. was redesignated as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and officially absorbed by the active-duty Army. This time, the situation was about to become even more urgent. The Germans had begun a concentrated counteroffensive on the Western Front, assaulting through the Ardennes forest in an attempt to split Allied lines. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, the fighting raged for five weeks and took a heavy toll on American forces. Some 19,000 G.I.s were killed, and many tens of thousands were wounded, captured or missing in action. Surrounded by death, soldiers in the trenches were desperate to receive word from loved ones back home — while at the same time, the chaos of the battle strained the Army’s ability to deliver it.

The War Department seized the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: get the soldiers their mail and grant Black women fuller participation in the war. By that point, Adams had ascended to the rank of major and had served in various administrative and leadership roles. She was training new recruits in Fort Des Moines when her commander asked how she would feel about an assignment in Europe. She was hesitant at first, concerned that she might be out of her depth leading troops overseas. But it seems that whatever doubts she harbored vanished by the time she arrived on the ground. She was allotted six months to complete her mission. The Six Triple Eight would do it in three.

Birmingham was battered and scarred in the winter of 1945. More than 1,800 tons of ordnance had been dropped on the city during the Battle of Britain. The Six Triple Eight was delivered by convoy to a bombed-damaged school on the edge of town. There was scant heat and barely any light, as the windows had been painted black to avoid detection by the Luftwaffe. In addition to serving as a barracks for the unit’s more than 800 enlisted personnel, the building would also be their workplace. As for the daily mechanics of the operation, there was still a lot that needed to be figured out.

The battalion was split into four postal-directory companies, and duties were divided up. The women worked around the clock, seven days a week, in rotating eight-hour shifts. Each shift sorted and processed approximately 65,000 pieces of mail bound for troops scattered across Europe. Letters and packages were often labeled without key identifying information, like serial numbers, making it exceedingly difficult to locate the intended recipients, especially because many soldiers shared the same name. More than 7,500 Robert Smiths served in the European Theater.

But the initial shock of the workload eventually gave way to collective determination. Before long, the Six Triple Eight was operating the fastest and most reliable mail directory in the European Theater. “No mail, low morale” was their unofficial motto. Looking back years later, women who served under Adams would recount how she earned their full support by going above and beyond to safeguard the unit’s integrity. Like the time an American general appeared in Birmingham for a surprise inspection. When he complained of low turnout, Adams explained that a third of the battalion was occupied with their work, while their strict scheduling required another third to be sleeping. Appalled, the general threatened to replace her. “I’m going to send a white first lieutenant down here to show you how to run this unit,” he said. But Adams didn’t budge. Her reply: “Over my dead body, sir.” The general made moves to court-martial Adams for insubordination but ultimately he backed down, and she remained in charge.

Adams also clashed with the Red Cross after it prepared a segregated hotel specially for Six Triple Eight members on leave in London. Apparently worried about Black servicewomen socializing with white soldiers and civilians in the city, the organization suggested to Adams that “colored girls would be happier if they had a hotel all to themselves.” At the encouragement of Adams, nobody from the unit ever stayed there. Instead, she coordinated with Black troops stationed in London to ensure her soldiers stayed only in integrated hotels. The outcome was a small but profound victory for Adams. “What we had was a large group of adult Negro women who had been victimized, in one way or another, by racial bias,” she wrote in her memoir. “This was one opportunity to stand together for a common cause.”

Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the Six Triple Eight was sent to France. They had been summoned to the city of Rouen to clear another postal logjam while noncombat military operations continued in the aftermath of the war. It was there that the unit tragically lost three of its own to a motor-vehicle accident: Mary Bankston, Mary Barlow and Dolores Browne, a trio known in their company as the “three B’s.” Adams was determined that they receive a proper burial. A few members of the battalion had worked in a mortuary before joining the military, and they prepared the bodies. The services, paid for with money the unit raised, were held in a hospital chapel. Bankston, Barlow and Browne account for three of just four women buried at the Normandy American Cemetery.

In December 1945, Adams and much of the Six Triple Eight sailed back to the United States. That same month, the Army promoted Adams to lieutenant colonel, making her the first African-American woman to achieve that rank. She left the service the following year to finish graduate school before working at the Veterans Administration and as a college dean. “The problems of racial harmony, Black acceptance and opportunity were still unresolved,” she wrote in her memoir, “but these were problems I could still work to help solve as a civilian.” After marrying and spending a few years in Switzerland studying Jungian psychology and learning German while her husband attended medical school, Charity Adams Earley spent the rest of her life applying her talents and energies to issues of racial justice as a community leader and activist in Dayton, Ohio.

Despite the enormous sacrifices made by Black soldiers overseas, the military wasn’t officially desegregated until 1948. It would take another two decades for the country as a whole to follow suit — and that process is still far from complete. Five more decades passed before the Six Triple Eight, as a unit, received any formal recognition for its contributions during World War II. In 2019, the Army awarded the battalion the Meritorious Unit Commendation. As Lena King, 97, one of the Six Triple Eight’s few still-surviving members, put it, “We were never made to feel like anything we’d done was special. We never got a parade. We just went home to our families.”

That was how the story ended for most Six Triple Eight veterans.

When Adams died in January 2002, her family requested an honor guard but was turned down by an Army stretched thin by the recent invasion of Afghanistan. Only after an Air Force general learned of Adams’s passing and offered to provide an honor guard for her funeral, as an acknowledgment of the importance of her legacy to all of the armed services, did the Army reverse its decision. Thus two honor guards — the Army’s, and one from the Air Force, composed mostly of women — helped lay to rest the commander of the Six Triple Eight and the first Black woman to ever lead American troops overseas.

Christina Brown Fisher is an Air Force veteran and writer whose work has appeared in BrainLine, Big Think, HuffPost and The Root. She was an anchor and correspondent for MSNBC and NBC News. Follow her on Twitter: @cbrownfisher.


Black History Month 2021

What a topical message for what will undoubtedly be known as a historical moment. A pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 people — a disproportionate number of them Black Americans. A movement for racial justice that drove thousands to protest for months. A reckoning with history that has prompted the Pentagon to strip Confederate names from bases. It’s no wonder the words of poet Amanda Gorman, referencing the musical “Hamilton,” struck such a chord with her audience on Inauguration Day.

Black History Month is a time we pay tribute to the heroes and heroines of U.S. history and recognize the vast contributions they’ve made to American culture. To showcase their stories, The Washington Post compiled a selection of recently published stories and columns that represent Black excellence and triumph.

Editor’s picks

Nannie Helen Burroughs and others pose for a group portrait at the National Training School for Women and Girls in D.C., circa 1909. (Library of Congress)

Denied a teaching job for being “too Black,” Nannie Helen Burroughs started her own school — and a movement. She fought tirelessly for Black women of every shade to win the right to an education, fair wages, suffrage and a place of leadership in the country. | By Jessy McHugh

African Americans, who were part of the Army cavalry units known as Buffalo Soldiers, were brought in to teach horsemanship to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., in 1907. In the 1920s, they played on a segregated football team. (National Archives and Records Administration)

A recent digitization project found a dozen old pictures showing Black soldiers at West Point, including the one above showing an all-Black football team in the 1920s. Units of the famous African American troops known as Buffalo Soldiers were brought to West Point to teach horsemanship to cadets in 1907. | By Michael E. Ruane

Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee and Sylvia Garcia in Houston before George Floyd's funeral June 9. (Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post)

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) is making a renewed push for a national commission to examine the impact of slavery and reparations for descendants of millions of enslaved Africans. | By DeNeen L. Brown

Cecil Haney served as commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the U.S. Strategic Command. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Cecil Haney became one of the Navy’s first Black four-star admirals. The military has work to do on diversity, he says. | By Dan Lamothe

Harriet Tubman in the late 1800s. (Harvey B. Lindsley/Library of Congress/AP)

Renowned as a Black liberator, Harriet Tubman was also a brilliant spy. Tubman was the first woman to successfully plan and lead a military expedition during the Civil War. Now, Tubman has been inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. | By DeNeen L. Brown

The Washington Post (Photos courtesy of W. Caleb McDaniel and David Blackman)

After the Civil War, Henrietta Wood won a reparations lawsuit after suing the man who’d kidnapped her back into slavery. Yet the story was lost to her own family. | By Sydney Trent

In tribute to the lives lost

Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) in 2019. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“I follow my conscience, not my complexion.” John Lewis, a civil rights and congressional leader, died at the age of 80 on July 17. The Georgia Democrat spent three decades in Congress defending the gains he had helped achieve for people of color as a 1960s civil rights leader. | By Post Staff

Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician and inspiration for the film “Hidden Figures”

John Thompson Jr., first Black coach to win the NCAA championship

Lucile Bridges, mother who stood by her daughter Ruby through school desegregation

Fred “Curly” Neal, dribbling “wizard” of the Globetrotters

Bob Gibson, intimidating Hall of Fame pitcher with a blazing fastball

Chadwick Boseman in 2013. (Matt McClain For The Washington Post)

“Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history.” Chadwick Boseman portrayed monumental figures like Jackie Robinson and Marvel superhero Black Panther. | By Matt Schudel

Bill Withers, Grammy-winning writer and singer of “Lean on Me”

Stanley Crouch, combative writer, intellectual and authority on jazz

David Dinkins, New York City’s first Black mayor

Johnny Nash, singer-songwriter of “I Can See Clearly Now”

Vernon Jordan, civil rights leader, head of the National Urban League, lawyer and presidential adviser

Actress Cicely Tyson in 2008. (W.A.Harewood/AP)

“I wait for roles — first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a Black woman,” Cicely Tyson told the Entertainment News Service in 1997. “And then I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I’ve really got three strikes against me. So, aren’t you amazed I’m still here?” Perspective: Tyson embodied what it takes to be a great actor: instinct and intention. | By Anne Hornaday

Herman Cain, chief executive and former GOP presidential hopeful

Little Richard, flamboyant star of early rock-and-roll

C.T. Vivian, aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ellis Marsalis, pianist who launched a jazz dynasty in New Orleans

Hank Aaron during spring training on March 22, 1966. (AP/AP)

“I believed, and still do, that there was a reason why I was chosen to break the record. I feel it’s my task to carry on where Jackie Robinson left off, and I only know one way to go about it.” The life and career of Hank Aaron, a baseball great who became a force for civil rights. | By Post Staff

Bruce Carver Boynton, civil rights lawyer whose prior actions helped spark the Freedom Rides

Theodore Gaffney, photographer who risked his life documenting the Freedom Riders

Gale Sayers, Hall of Fame running back for the Chicago Bears

Betty Wright, Grammy-winning soul singer and songwriter

Kobe Bryant at his last NBA game in Los Angeles in 2016. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

During his final season with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant wrote a poem called “Dear Basketball,” which amounted to a farewell to the game that made him a household name: “As a six-year-old boy / Deeply in love with you / I never saw the end of the tunnel / I only saw myself / Running out of one.” Remembering Kobe Bryant, a tireless competitor who became a global sports icon. | By Kent Babb

Slavery and freedom

Even after abolition, the Black experience has fallen victim to campaigns that obscure the darkest parts of the American story, diminishing African Americans’ connections to their pasts and warping the collective memory of the nation’s history. But in recent years, Black Americans have pursued new efforts to uncover their stories. From exploring sunken vessels of the Middle Passage to reconstructing museum exhibits that chronicle slavery, African Americans are breaking down the barriers that separate them from their ancestors and reconnecting with a lineage once lost. Explore The Descendants project. | By Nicole Ellis

For the 50 million students attending public school in America, how they are taught about America’s history of slavery and its deprivations is as fundamental as how they are taught about the Declaration of Independence and its core assertion that “all men are created equal.” A deep understanding of one without a deep understanding of the other is to not know America at all. | By Joe Heim

Iris Haq Lukolyo, 10, is the only Black student in her fifth-grade class. She spoke up when slavery wasn’t included in a lesson plan and later penned an essay about the experience that went viral. | By Julianne McShane

The Angela Site in Williamsburg, Va., is named after one of the first Africans to arrive in Historic Jamestown. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“If they find the remains, we can know how old she was when she arrived. Did she have children? What did she die of? We will know more about this person, and we can reclaim her humanity.” History professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander on Angela, the first African woman documented in Virginia. | By DeNeen L. Brown

More than 150 years after slavery was abolished, congressional Democrats and Japanese American civil rights leaders are mobilizing around reparations for African Americans. Japanese Americans received reparations more than four decades after their captivity. African Americans have not. | By Tracy Jan

A political cartoon on Richard Mentor Johnson and his relationship with Julia Chinn. (Library of Congress)

Richard Mentor Johnson, a who eventually became the nation’s ninth vice president in 1837, had an enslaved wife. Her name was Julia Chinn. | By Ronald G. Shafer

Movement for racial justice

A protester shouts, “No justice, no peace” as state police block the road May 29 in Minneapolis. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The Post’s six-part series examines the role systemic racism played throughout George Floyd’s 46-year life. The reporting explores the institutional and societal roadblocks Floyd encountered as a Black man from his birth in 1973 until his death. | By Post Staff

Cori Bush in St. Louis on Sept. 23. (Michael B. Thomas for The Washington Post)

Cori Bush got sick of asking public officials to make sweeping changes, particularly regarding criminal justice. So she ran for Congress, winning on her third try. She is the first Black Lives Matter organizer to serve in the House of Representatives. | By Jada Yuan

The brave, forgotten Kansas lunch counter sit-in that helped change America. | By Kate Torgovnick May

C.T. Vivian prays in front of Sheriff Jim Clark on the courthouse steps in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 5, 1965. Ten days later, Clark would punch Vivian in the face at the same spot. (Horace Cort/AP)

The voting rights push in Selma was one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement. But before Selma was Selma, it was another local front in the movement struggling for national media attention. How Selma finally broke through is recounted in civil rights leader C.T. Vivian’s posthumous memoir, “It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior." | By Gillian Brockell

Two Black men are marched out of a house after surrendering to a state highway patrolman during rioting in Columbia, Tenn., on Feb. 26, 1946. (AP) (AP)

Museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III at the Natural History Museum in Washington on July 10, 2019. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

“There is always that sense that, ‘Am I going to have the experience that I want, which is to be free of race and to enjoy this moment? Or will race tap me on the shoulder?’ And it usually does.” Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, recalls his family’s stories of travel during the Green Book-era and reflects on travel today. | By Rhonda Colvin

Racism denied Auburn’s first Black student a master’s degree. Then, at 86, he returned. | By DeNeen L. Brown

Audrey Nell Edwards Hamilton with Martin Luther King III in 2011. (David Nolan)

“I always used to wonder why I used to go apply for a job and I never could get one. I was hurt. I was in disbelief. I couldn’t believe that these people in St. Augustine had kept this record hanging over my head for 40 years … for just asking for a hamburger. For sitting in. For food we never did get — in America. You know, God bless America.” Audrey Nell Edwards Hamilton, the last surviving member of the St. Augustine Four, is the Black girl who defied segregation, inspiring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson. | By Martin Dobrow

Demands for racial equity and justice have always been part of the American story. While the images here span the past two weeks, the words paired with them span the past 100 years. | By David Montgomery

Emmett Till’s brutal murder changed America. Now his home is a historic landmark. | By DeNeen L. Brown

Freedom Rider Dion Diamond holds a photograph of his mug shot from his 1961 arrest in Jackson, Miss. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Dion Diamond joined the Freedom Riders of the ’60s for what he thought would be a weekend. It turned out to be two years. | By Rachel Hatzipangos

Malcolm X in D.C. in 1963. (AP)

Family members of Malcolm X have revealed a letter written by a New York police officer that they say shows the NYPD and the FBI were behind the 1965 assassination of the famed Black leader. The 2011 letter by the now-dead officer, Raymond A. Wood, stated that Wood had been compelled by his supervisors at the New York Police Department to coax two members of Malcolm X’s security team into committing crimes, leading to their arrests just a few days before the assassination. | By Sydney Trent

Politics

Vice President Harris seen Jan. 20 in Washington. (Melina Mara/Pool/The Washington Post)

Vice President Harris is the first woman and Black and South Asian person to hold the nation’s second-highest office. “On this night of celebration, a Black woman was not last. She was not the least of many. She was at the center of it all.” On how Harris made history with quiet, exquisite power. | By Robin Givhan

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock in Marietta, Ga., on Jan. 5. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

“The 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator. The improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America could only happen here.” The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, referencing his mother’s work in the 1950s picking cotton and tobacco in his victory speech. For many Black church congregants, Warnock’s projected victory was an answer to their prayers. | By Clyde McGrady

At the turn of the 20th century — more than 50 years after the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls — many White women remained opposed to suffrage, fearing a fall from their domestic pedestals. Meanwhile, Black women, with less to lose and so much to gain, were almost uniformly in favor of the vote. Deltas: The Black sorority that faced racism in the suffrage movement but refused to walk away. | By Sydney Trent

Stacey Abrams as a nominee for Georgia governor at Morehouse College in Atlanta on Nov. 2, 2018. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“Leadership is about answering that question: How can I help?” Stacey Abrams is the first Black woman in U.S. history to have won the gubernatorial nomination of either major party. She garnered more votes than any Democrat who has run statewide in Georgia. After losing the governor race by just over 50,000 votes, she focused her efforts on combating voter suppression in the 2020 presidential election. | By Post Staff

Perspective: Black women have shaped politics in Boston for centuries. A Black woman mayor will be the latest step in a long tradition. | By Kabria Baumgartner

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) speaks on Capitol Hill in June. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

As the only Black GOP senator, Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has walked a delicate line between schooling his colleagues — and former president Donald Trump — on matters of race and remaining silent. It’s an unenviable position to be the one senator asked constantly to account for Trump’s language and policies on race because that one senator happens to be Black. | By Ben Terris

Ritchie Torres in 2018. (Richard Drew/AP)

Opinion: When Ritchie Torres got into the race for Congress, no one gave him a shot. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t support him. The local Democratic Party didn’t support him. AOC didn’t endorse him. And a notoriously homophobic, pro-Trump Democratic member of the City Council was the candidate favored to win the primary. But he didn’t. Ritchie Torres won. He’ll come to Washington not just as a free man politically, but also as the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress. Listen to Torres on Jonathan Capehart’s podcast, “Cape Up.”

Virettia Whiteside in Mayfair Manor's Community Room. (Jared Ragland for The Washington Post)
Business and the economy

Tulsa will commemorate the May 1921 race massacre's centennial this year. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

White Tulsans killed scores of African Americans and destroyed nearly $2 million in property ($29 million in today’s dollars). No Black property owners were compensated. Now, as activists across the country mobilize around reparations to atone for slavery and its legacy of systemic discrimination against African Americans, some Black Tulsans are demanding restitution for the massacre, the theft of Black wealth and government barriers to rebuilding. | By Tracy Jan

Roz Brewer, the only Black woman who helms a Fortune 500 company who is now in charge of Walgreens’ vaccine rollout, recounts an encounter she had with a male CEO who mistakenly asked her if she worked in marketing or merchandising departments at a CEO-only event. | By Jena McGregor

Rosewood scholarship recipient Morgan Carter at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee on Dec. 13, 2019. (Zack Wittman for The Washington Post)

“You always have to be the best and prove a point, simply because of who you are and what your family has gone through.” Morgan Carter, 21, the great-granddaughter of a survivor of the 1923 Rosewood massacre on how a scholarship helped — and didn’t help — descendants of Rosewood victims. | By Robert Samuels

Columnist Michelle Singletary recalls her experience as one of relatively few Black reporters at The Post in the early 1990s and examines the notion that affirmative action gives unqualified Black people an unfair advantage. Read her 10-part series about race and inequality, in which she tackles investing, wealth, reparations and more. | By Michelle Singletary

Military

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. salutes Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth O. Wright at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Aug. 6. (Eric Dietrich/U.S. Air Force)

“I’m thinking about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers and then being questioned by another military member, are you a pilot?” The new Air Force chief wasn’t sure how to address George Floyd’s killing. Then he talked to his son. | By Dan Lamothe

Retired four-star Army general Lloyd Austin, who made history by becoming the nation’s first African American defense secretary, on eradicating extremism from the military. | By Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne

Julius Becton Jr., a retired lieutenant general who earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts in Korea, on the tragic stories behind the executive order that eventually desegregated the U.S. armed forces. | By DeNeen L. Brown

Art and artifacts

“I get tons of girls who write to me or come up to me after I recite my poetry saying, ‘I have your same exact speech impediment and I’m writing poetry. Thank you for sharing your story.’ Moments like that are the most exciting because the momentum doesn’t end with me. It’s just being generated through me. And I get to watch this new generation take up the mantle and continue those conversations.” Amanda Gorman reflects on her experience as a Youth Poet Laureate. | By Madeline Weinfield

Kerry James Marshall’s “Souvenir II,” 1997. (Addison Gallery of American Art/Courtesy New Museum)

Review: Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor’s final art show explores Black grief from the civil rights era to now. Remarkable in its quality, emotional force and concision, it features work by many of this country’s most acclaimed Black artists — among them Carrie Mae Weems, Mark Bradford, Lorna Simpson, Kerry James Marshall, Theaster Gates and Kara Walker. | By Sebastian Smee

The new movie “Judas and the Black Messiah” explores the role FBI informant William O’Neal played in the death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. The film captures Hampton’s dedication, eloquence, occasionally violent rhetoric and commitment to Black empowerment. O’Neal struggles with his dual role as a party member and FBI informant as he becomes increasingly sympathetic to the Panthers and their leader. | By Robert Mitchell

Opinion: On stages large and small, Black artists boldly offered up galvanizing visions that suggest not only can Americans of all races disentangle ourselves from a racist past, but also we can build a better future together. | By Alyssa Rosenberg

The 1619 Project has emerged as a watchword for our era — a hashtag, a talking point, a journalism case study, a scholarly mission. It is the subject of dueling academic screeds, Fox News segments, publishers’ bidding wars and an upcoming series of Oprah-produced films. How the 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones took over 2020. | By Sarah Ellison

Black TV writers have often felt like “diversity decoration.” Now they’re braced for another round of promises. | By Sonia Rao

Geoff Edgers and Tracee Ellis Ross on Edgers's Instagram Live show, “Stuck with Geoff,” on Aug. 18. (The Washington Post)

“The career I have is about storytelling, but I’m more than an actor. I’m a producer and a founder of a hair company and a CEO. I’m an American citizen. I’m a Black woman.” Q&A with Tracee Ellis Ross. | By Geoff Edgers

Warren “Wawa” Snipe’s ASL Super Bowl performance went viral. He wants to redefine what deaf artists can do. | By Andrea Salcedo

Perspective: The book “Vanguard” recounts how many suffragists and lawmakers who sought to ratify the 19th Amendment accommodated and, in some cases, embraced anti-Black racism even as they worked to expand access to a fundamental democratic right. Jim Crow laws — poll taxes, literacy tests and more — prevented Black women from casting ballots for decades after the 19th Amendment became law in 1920. Black history is often shunned — like the book I wrote. | By Martha S. Jones

As a young man, Anthony Barboza wanted to work as a photographer — but no one would hire him. He found mentors in the Kamoinge Workshop in New York City. Barboza worked for Essence and Esquire, and befriended Miles Davis. See Barboza’s work. | By Bronwen Latimer

Black Americans have been migrating to Paris for decades, and the Roaring Twenties, les années folles (the crazy years), were especially significant. The French had just been introduced to jazz, and they fell in love with Black art and culture. Performers Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet would leave their mark on music. More than two decades later, James Baldwin and Richard Wright would leave their mark on literature. All of them found a home in Paris, seeking to escape the daily trauma that Black people faced in the United States. Fast forward to today, and African American creatives are still migrating to Paris, while others are finding ways to keep Black history alive in the city. | By Priscilla Lalisse-Jespersen

Music

Blues singer Shemekia Copeland for The Washington Post Magazine. (Ian Maddox for The Washington Post)

“Country music ain’t nothin’ but the blues with a twang.” Widely hailed as the greatest blues singer of her generation and the reigning Queen of the Blues, Shemekia Copeland, 41, has grown impatient with business as usual in the industry. Now she wants to fuse politics with the blues. | By Carlo Rotella

In December 2010, a mysterious banjo tune popped up on a website devoted to early recordings. Even by that definition, this song stood out. It dated to when Grover Cleveland occupied the White House, opening with a crackle before the steady voice of Charles Asbury introduces himself and his performance of “Haul the Woodpile Down.” This mysterious recording was the missing musical link to an era when racism was the tune. | By Geoff Edgers

Six songs tell you as much about Aretha Franklin as any memoir ever could. The Queen of Soul was not much for talking about her life, so with the help of Oprah Winfrey, Paul Simon, Questlove and others, we peel back the layers of emotion, technique and lived experience she packed into these key performances. | By Geoff Edgers

Sports

Brunswick High School football coach Jason Vaughn in Georgia on Sept. 1. (Stephen B. Morton for The Washington Post)

“People on the low have told me I could lose my job for this. A lot of people told me not to do it. People told me to stop stirring trouble. I became an agitator in my hometown, for talking about a guy who was murdered in his community. But one of the great things about coaching: I got more support from the community than I got threats.” Jason Vaughn emerged as a leading advocate for justice for Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man — and his former linebacker — who was shot and killed after being chased by armed White men while jogging in a local neighborhood. | By Roman Stubbs

Perspective: Simone Manuel didn’t just win any medal. She didn’t sneak in at the end and get a bronze. No, she recovered from a poor start in the 100-meter freestyle, blazed at the turn and won gold. She finished in a dead heat with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak to share first place in an Olympic record time of 52.70 seconds. She realizes how powerful a symbol she now is. | By Jerry Brewer

San Francisco 49ers Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2016. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Perspective: Two knees. One protesting in the grass, one pressing on the back of a man’s neck. Choose. You have to choose which knee you will defend. There are no half choices there is no room for indifference. There is only the knee of protest or the knee on the neck. This is why Colin Kaepernick took a knee. | By Sally Jenkins

Perspective: Protesters often win history’s long game. Ask Tommie Smith and John Carlos. | By Jerry Brewer

A sharecropper’s daughter, Wyomia Tyus grew up on a dairy farm in rural Georgia during the Jim Crow era. She overcame family tragedy as a teenager and went on to win four Olympic medals, including the two 100-meter golds. She also set or equaled the 100-meter world record four times. | By Stephen Wilson

Family and relationships

From left, Regina Tucker, Shauniece Morris, Anowa Adjah and Mikaela Pabon at the Momference in D.C. on May 18, 2019. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)

For Black women, looking after their mental and emotional well-being is just as or more important than taking your prenatal vitamin every morning. The existential stress can take a toll. Coverage of the community has revolved around high maternal mortality rates, but Helena Andrews-Dyer needed to read an article about joy. This is it. This isn’t another horror story about Black motherhood. | By Helena Andrews-Dyer

For interracial couples, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff are a “monumental” symbol. Together Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants who identifies culturally as Black, and Emhoff, a Jewish entertainment lawyer, represent yet another less-heralded first: the first interracial couple at the highest reaches of the executive branch. | By Sydney Trent

Tierra Haynes and her husband, Maryland basketball assistant DeAndre Haynes, with their children — Dre, Devon and Dallas. (Kelsey Price)

Tierra and DeAndre Haynes want their boys to see an array of career paths. So Tierra wrote a children’s book about the first African American to go to space. | By Emily Giambalvo

Nigel Greaves, of Springfield, Mass., with daughter Lela Joy on June 15. (Philip Keith for The Washington Post)

“Our kids are not natural-born activists. They don’t gravitate toward a protest march. But I think, for most people, if you’re troubled by the state of the world, doing something to express your agitation, your concern, your aspiration, is really helpful and healthy. We would love our girls to experience that.” Andrew Grant-Thomas, co-founder of EmbraceRace, a family-focused racial justice nonprofit. What five Black fathers are saying to their children about this historic moment. | By Caitlin Gibson

Chef and editor Klancy Miller in Brooklyn on Jan. 20. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post.)

When Klancy Miller launched her fundraising campaign for For the Culture in December 2019, the food media world took notice. With the mission of “A magazine celebrating Black women and femmes in food and wine,” it is believed to be the first of its kind dedicated to the task. Now, more than a year later, the inaugural issue has been printed and shipped to supporters — and is available for purchase online. “I’m feeling very excited. And, frankly, relieved,” Miller says. “And a little bit protective.” For the Culture magazine celebrates Black women in food. Finally. | By Aaron Hutcherson

Perspective: My father taught me about Black food and identity. Now that he’s gone, cookbooks fill the gap. | By Anela Malik

Chefs Todd Richards, left, and Josh Lee at Lake & Oak Neighborhood BBQ in Atlanta on Aug. 29. (Diwang Valdez for The Washington Post)

When Todd Richards and Joshua Lee first met in 2015, they were executive chefs at two restaurants owned by the same company, two blocks apart in downtown Atlanta. They soon realized they shared a bigger goal: to own restaurants outright, so they could help more Black people and other people of color discover and harness their passions in and around the kitchen. | By Christopher A. Daniel


The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans

A group of African-American soldiers in England during the Second World War. A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative documents the susceptibility of black ex-soldiers to extrajudicial murder and assault. Photograph by David E. Scherman / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

In the week after the election, the Equal Justice Initiative, of Montgomery, Alabama, released a new report—a fifty-three-page addendum to last year’s “Lynching in America,” an unprecedentedly thorough survey of American racial violence and terror between 1877 and 1950. Drawing on small-town newspaper and court archives, along with interviews of local historians and victims’ descendants across the South, “Lynching in America” tallied four thousand and seventy-five lynchings, at least eight hundred more than any previous count. The new report, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans,” concludes that, during the same period, “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans.” The susceptibility of black ex-soldiers to extrajudicial murder and assault has long been recognized by historians, but the topic has never received such comprehensive standalone treatment. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, it seems eerily relevant.

Like “Lynching in America,” the new report, which is available online, was compiled by E.J.I. attorneys and research fellows. The organization is, at its core, a law firm that challenges illegal convictions, unfair sentences, and prison abuse. But, as Jeffrey Toobin noted in his recent Profile of E.J.I.’s founder and director, Bryan Stevenson, over time the nonprofit has taken on another mission: complicating mainstream American narratives about race, history, and violence.

“We do so much in this country to celebrate and honor folks who risk their lives on the battlefield,” Stevenson told me recently. “But we don’t remember that black veterans were more likely to be attacked for their service than honored for it.” To be a soldier is to receive training in weapons, in organizations, in tactics: the skills of self-assertion. It is also to lay claim to the reverence that America sets aside for its former warriors. For these reasons, the return home of black soldiers after war has infuriated and terrified white America, setting the stage for reactionary aggression.

When the Civil War broke out, the Union was reluctant to let black soldiers fight at all, citing concerns over white soldiers’ morale and the respect that black soldiers would feel entitled to when the war ended. But, as the Union death toll increased, the skeptics relented. By war’s end, almost two hundred thousand black men had enlisted. This is widely known today, thanks in large part to works of art like the 1989 film “Glory.” Unfortunately, less cultural bandwidth has been devoted to what happened to those black troops after the fighting stopped. Few high-school or college students, when they learn about military history, learn about the lynching of black veterans.

In 1877, when Reconstruction ended, black veterans living in Southern states quickly became targets for white violence. White newspapers spread rumors of black soldiers assaulting white police. States across the South prohibited blacks from handling weapons. Compared to those who had not served, former soldiers were disproportionately assaulted, driven from their homes, and, in the most extreme cases, lynched in public. “Targeting Black Veterans” traces this trend in coolly objective prose, occasionally detailing shocking examples. “At Bardstown in Nelson County, Kentucky, a mob brutally lynched a United States Colored Troops veteran,” we learn. “The mob stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and then cut off his sexual organs. He was then forced to run half a mile to a bridge outside of town, where he was shot and killed.”

When the First World War broke out, black thinkers and writers debated the merits of signing up to fight for a country that functionally denied them full citizenship. Three hundred and eighty thousand black men heeded W. E. B. Du Bois’s call to enlist in the segregated Army, many of them hoping that doing so would increase the standing of blacks on the home front. But for much of white America, front-line military service by blacks undercut the claims of racial superiority around which their lives—and their economies—were structured. In a speech on the Senate floor in 1917, Mississippi Senator James K. Vardaman warned that the return of black veterans to the South would “inevitably lead to disaster.” Once you “impress the negro with the fact that he is defending the flag” and “inflate his untutored soul with military airs,” Vardaman cautioned, it was a short step to the conclusion that “his political rights must be respected.”

After the Armistice, black veterans returning home were greeted not with recognition of their civil rights but, instead, with an intense wave of discrimination and hostility. Whites speculated that, while stationed in Europe, black soldiers had enjoyed wartime liaisons with white French women, increasing their lust—which, in the white imagination, was already dangerously high—for sex with white American women. Many black veterans were denied the benefits and disability pay they’d been promised. In the first summer after the war, known as the Red Summer, anti-black riots erupted in more than twenty American cities, including Houston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. “This is the right time to show them what will and what will not be permitted, and thus save them much trouble in the future,” one Louisiana newspaper opined, in an editorial titled “Nip It In the Bud.” In the years after the war, at least thirteen black veterans were lynched. Countless more survived beatings, shootings, and whippings. As E.J.I. staff examined these attacks in detail, they noticed that, often, the only provocation was a black man’s insistence on wearing his uniform in public. “It’s really shocking,” Stevenson said. “Just the sight of a black soldier, just the suggestion that he might take on that empowered, adult, mature identity—that could get him killed.”

And yet 1.2 million black men enlisted during the Second World War—a display of commitment to, and faith in, America that is as moving as it is mind-boggling. Initially, these men were barred from combat, and instead assigned to service duties such as cleaning white officers’ quarters and latrines. Just as in the Civil War, only mounting casualties convinced the generals to allow black soldiers the privilege of risking their lives on the front line. And just as in the First World War, a vast chasm quickly sprang up between wartime rhetoric and wartime reality. Black soldiers stationed at military bases in the segregated South were forbidden from eating in restaurants that opened their doors to German prisoners of war.

After the war, multiple veterans were attacked almost immediately, often by drivers or fellow-passengers on the buses and trains transporting them back to their homes. Many more soon realized that the G.I. Bill had been constructed in such a way that most of its benefits—including mortgage support, college tuition, and business loans—could be denied to them. Racial violence spiked.

The experience of service did boost black veterans’ sense of entitlement to basic rights. So did the more equal treatment they received, during the First and Second World Wars, from Europeans whom they met while stationed abroad. Often, military service elevated black soldiers’ sense of themselves as people more capable of pushing back. (As Du Bois put it in a 1919 Crisis editorial on the subject, “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.”) It is no coincidence that so many veterans, including Hosea Williams and Medgar Evers, went on to play key roles in civil-rights organizations.

Reading “Targeting Black Veterans” in early November, it was almost impossible to avoid comparison to our present moment, in which the hopes of many that the election of a black President could usher in a new era of racial reconciliation have been dashed. “Historically, it was a provocation for black men to wear the uniform, to claim that role,” Stevenson said. “A black man sitting in the White House is a similar provocation. The reality of a more diverse society, with more people demanding respect, is a provocation. And Trump is the response.”


The Hidden History of the First Black Women to Serve in the U.S. Navy

When Jerri Bell first wrote about the Golden Fourteen, their story only took up a sentence. These 14 Black women were the first to serve in the U.S. Navy, and Bell, a former naval officer and historian with the Veteran’s Writing Project, included them in a book about women’s contributions in every American war, co-written with a former Marine. But even after the book was published, Bell couldn’t get their story out of her head.

“It made me kind of mad,” Bell says. “Here are these women, and they were the first! But I think there was also a general attitude at the time that the accomplishments of women were not a big deal. Women were not going to brag.”

Bell was one of a few researchers who have been able to track down documents that acknowledge the lives and work of these Black women. She knew that during World War I, the Fourteen had somehow found employment in the muster roll unit of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C., under officer John T. Risher. One was Risher’s sister-in-law and distant cousin, Armelda Hattie Greene.

The Golden Fourteen worked as yeomen and were tasked with handling administrative and clerical work. They had access to official military records, including the work assignments and locations of sailors. At the time, Black men who enlisted in the Navy could only work as messmen, stewards, or in the engine room, shoveling coal into the furnace. They performed menial labor and weren’t given opportunities to rise in rank.

The Golden Fourteen tackled administrative and clerical work. Kelly Miller’s History of the World War for Human Rights

Bell wasn’t surprised to learn about the barriers faced by service members of color. She knew that Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy at the time, was a documented white supremacist with ties to the Wilmington Massacre, in which a white mob overthrew a local Reconstruction-era government and murdered Black residents. During the First World War, the U.S. Navy maintained the status quo of racism that continued long after. Many Black service members were also targeted by white mobs after the war.

What was surprising was that a legal technicality had paved the way for Black women to work for the Navy more than a century ago. A shortage of clerical workers led then-president Woodrow Wilson to pass the Naval Reserve Act of 1916, which asked for “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful services for coastal defense.” The Golden Fourteen were part of a larger group of over 11,000 women, almost all of them white, who were able to join the navy as yeomanettes, the title given to female yeomen.

Of the few archival records that exist of the Golden Fourteen, one thing is clear: In a period when stepping out of line could have violent repercussions for Black women, they worked without drawing attention to themselves.

“This is quite a novel experiment,” wrote the sociologist Kelly Miller in The History of the World War for Human Rights, published in 1919. “As it is the first time in the history of the navy of the United States that colored women have been employed in any clerical capacity … It was reserved to young colored women to invade successfully the yeoman branch, hereby establishing a precedent.”

Bell’s fascination with the Golden Fourteen only deepened. She is now writing a book about them, and has spent more than four and a half years, as well as thousands of dollars, collecting archival materials. She’s waited patiently to get military and civilian personnel records from the National Archives, which can often take years, and has combed through historical accounts that have not been digitized. She’s looked at photos and spoken with the last living descendant of the Risher family, who says that his aunt, Greene, never spoke of her naval service.

The memory keepers who tell the story of the Golden Fourteen are almost all veterans. Researchers like Bell have the personal connection and the professional knowledge to recover what fragments remain. She feels a powerful responsibility, to the point that she missed the first deadline for her manuscript nine months ago. Because she is telling a story that has been so thoroughly forgotten—and arguably erased—she wants her research to be truly comprehensive. “I just discovered some documents that I need to physically go to another state to get access to,” Bell says. “I couldn’t turn in the manuscript before. I know I owe these women more than that.”

In terms of race and sex, the Golden Fourteen were anomalies in the Navy.

There is one other place where stories of the Golden Fourteen have been passed down: in family histories. When Tracey L. Brown was 10 years old, she looked through her family photo album and saw a light-skinned woman she didn’t recognize. Her grandmother, Nan, told her that the woman with the blonde hair and hazel eyes was Brown’s great-grandmother, Ruth Ann Welborn. Welborn was one of the Golden Fourteen. Though she seemed to pass as white, she, like Brown, was African-American.

“I had known that she was one of very few Black women there,” Brown says. “But I didn’t know that there had been 14—I wasn’t expecting that many. I remember hearing about that, as a child, that there was some sort of scheme in how they were even able to enlist. I know it wasn’t simple.”

Although Brown grew up understanding who her great-grandmother had been, she didn’t grasp the magnitude of what Welborn and the other women had done until she was much older. Now a practicing attorney in a New York law firm, Brown started to dig deeper after her father, Ronald H. Brown, who had served as Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton, died in 1996. In her grief, she decided to write a memoir about him. “It was sort of the perfect storm,” Brown says. “I had just lost him, so I was really committed to telling his story.”

Brown talked to friends, family, and even President Clinton himself. After interviews with her grandmother, she finally began to unearth more about Ruth Welborn. “It was so exciting to even begin pursuing these stories,” Brown says. “There have been so many stories that have been lost in our community, and it was nice to be able to have a little slice.”

Ruth was the daughter of Walter Welborn, the son of a white merchant, Johnson W. Welborn, and a woman he enslaved at his house in Clinton, Mississippi, whose name and date of birth remain unknown. In 1863, during the chaos of conscription riots that followed the Emancipation Proclamation, Walter and his brother Eugene escaped from the biological father who had enslaved them. According to Brown’s memoir, their mother dressed them in Confederate uniforms, and perhaps thanks to the fair skin they had inherited, they were able to escape onto a train to Washington.

In Washington, Walter Welborn was a free man, and he married Elexine Beckley, who came from a well-educated and affluent Black family. Their five daughters inherited Walter’s fair skin, blonde hair, and hazel eyes. Like their mother, the five daughters graduated from the best schools available to Black children at the time.

In 1918, after graduating from Dunbar High School, Ruth decided to join the Naval Reserve, becoming one of the Golden Fourteen. “Ruth seemed very stern,” Brown says. “She was a stoic person: In every picture, her posture is perfect. She looks very commanding, and I can’t imagine playing with her like I had with my great-grandmother on my mother’s side.” She and Brown’s father were both buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Although Brown is one of the few to write about the Golden Fourteen, she is not alone. The Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote about Sara Davis Taylor, another yeomanette, in 1992. Taylor reportedly tried to join the Navy even before 1917. She and other Black women were turned away by military doctors, Milloy writes, because “they all allegedly had flat feet.” Only after President Wilson’s 1916 law were they assigned to Risher’s muster roll unit.

Relatively few of these stories have been passed on. Brown’s memoir is now out of print, and, according to Milloy’s column, Taylor and her husband did not have children. Richard E. Miller, a naval veteran and historian, laments in an article that many details may remain a mystery. “It is believed that all of the Black Navy women from the First World War have now passed away,” Miller writes. “Regrettably, the ‘golden’ place they deserved as pioneers in the annals of Afro-American, as well as naval and women’s history, was never accorded them during their lifetimes except perhaps within their immediate family circles.”

Racism and sexism were overt and systematized—but the Golden Fourteen entered the Naval ranks.

No one is quite sure how the Golden Fourteen convinced a segregated military to hire them, years before women could vote and half a century before the end of Jim Crow. Some historians theorize that all 14 worked in the same office, where white supervisors could monitor and protect them. Others suggest that most of the Golden Fourteen had light enough complexions to pass for white—though photographs suggest that this was not the case for all of them.

These questions have bothered Regina Akers, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command, for years. Akers, who is Black, has made a name for herself by centering Black women in military history. “To learn of these women was exciting, and also frustrating,” Akers says. “There are some sources out there that mention them, but it’s always done in such a tangential way.”

The historical backdrop makes the achievements of the Golden Fourteen all the more surprising. “Lynchings were a popular occurrence they were carried out with little threat of reprisal,” Akers says. “ If a black person approached a white person, they either moved aside, or they understood that you didn’t look them in the face, and just called them ma’am or sir.”

The U.S. military remains a site of systemic racism. This summer, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force released a video describing the racism he’s experienced during his career. When the Military Times surveyed hundreds of its readers in 2018, more than half of respondents of color said that they had witnessed white nationalism or racism from their peers.

Such stories have led Bell, who is white, to reflect on her own career as a naval officer. “I would ask Black colleagues, some working under me, about their experience as Black sailors in the Navy,” she says. “I realize that whatever my intentions may have been, they did not trust me to tell me what was really going on. People say that once you’re in uniform, no one looks at the color of your skin—but that’s crap.”


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