In Praise of Black Women in the Military

John R. Hawkins III

Historic and heroic service of women in the US military has been a little publicized fact dating from the Revolutionary War service of Deborah Samson to today. When looking for information about the selfless service of African American women in the U.S. military the scope of such service is even less publicized albeit as great.

It seems that most often when one reads about “… women in the military”, it is not about their outstanding service, but about if they should be in combat when in fact, they have been in combat for the betterment of the United States throughout American history.

Defying the prejudices of U.S. male military leaders refusing American women the opportunity to fight for their country, White women such as Deborah Samson even hid the fact that they were women so they could serve. The earliest recorded example is that of Deborah Samson, who portrayed herself as a man and even dug a musket ball out of her own thigh without medical attention, during the Revolutionary War.

African American women may have been able to hide their sex; however, the fact that they were Black was much more difficult to hide. African American women later would be recorded as serving proudly in the Civil War. One of the most courageous, valiant and well-known would be a Union Army Scout named Harriet Tubman. She is best known for her bravery and military skills exhibited in her more than 19 personal missions escorting over 300 slaves to freedom.

Although Sojourner Truth is best known as a pre and post-Civil War abolitionist and women’s rights activist, she served the U.S. Army during the Civil War recruiting African American troops for the Union Army. As the U.S. military began to require the services of “all Americans,” women began to serve in all of the then “women only” departments of all of the uniform services, including Harriet Ida Pickas and Frances Willis in the Navy’s “WAVES” service.

African American women then went on to serve in positions of even greater responsibility such as generals and now admirals. The first African American female general was Brigadier General Hazel Winifred Johnson-Brown of the US Army. She was promoted to Brigadier General in 1979. Others followed but not in numbers commensurate to that of males or White female officers.

Another of the many African American women serving in the military to be among the early African American general officers was Brigadier General Clara Adams-Ender, today a successful businesswoman and international leader. She is known for many “firsts”, including being the first African American woman to receive a Masters of Military Art and Science Degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, the first African American Nurse Corps officer to graduate from the U.S. Army War College and the first woman Commanding General of Ft Belvoir, VA and Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Military District of Washington. An inspiration to us all, whether military or not, she obtained all of her accomplishments despite starting out as a sharecropper’s daughter.

General Officer promotions for African American women continued, but at a slow pace, given the fact that it was not until 2011 that the U.S. Army appointed its first African American Major General (2 star), Maj. Gen. Marcia M. Anderson.

Recently, the U.S. Navy appointed Michelle Janine Howard as the first African American woman 4 Star “Flag Officer” in the United States Armed Forces, as Admiral and its Vice Chief of Naval Operations. She also is the first woman 4 Star Admiral of any race and was the first African American woman to command a US Navy ship.

In December of 2015, Nadja Y. West became the US Army’s first African American woman Lieutenant General (3 Star) and the first African American woman Army Surgeon General. A West Point graduate, the native Washingtonian graduated from Holy Name in Silver Spring, MD, and received her medical degree from GW University School of Medicine. Truly a pioneer, she was one of 12 adopted children.

African American women of greatness in the US military were warrior heroes of late as well, such as Lieutenant La’ Shonda Holmes, the first African American female Coast Guard pilot who had her wings pinned on her by the first African American Coast Guard pilot of either sex, Lieutenant Jeanine Menze. Another great African American woman hero is Captain Vernice Armour, the U.S. Marine Corps’ first African American combat pilot flying Super Cobra attack helicopters in Iraq.

From my foxhole, it seems African American women clearly have earned their most prestigious position, not only in Women’s History or Black History; but, in all history.

Maj Gen US Army (ret) John R. Hawkins III, JD, MPA is President and CEO of Hawkins Solutions Intl., a government relations and lobby company. His last military assignment as a “two star” was Dir., Human Resources Directorate for the Army world-wide and prior to that Deputy Chief Public Affairs for the Army, world-wide.