Years’ worth of backlog mail was stacked from floor to ceiling in warehouses throughout Birmingham, England in February 1945. The letters and packages were sent from loved ones to soldiers in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) of World War II.
Organized to tackle the problem, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an all-Black, all female military unit was formed, but not without conflict. Also nicknamed, “The Six-Triple Eight,” the unit’s determination to overcome strife and complete their mission resonated with Edna Cummings, a retired Colonel of the United States Army.
“It was more than just standing up to the officers and the Red Cross in Europe . . . this started back in the United States when Black women were fighting for equality,” Cummings told the AFRO, referring to the concerns that led to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was converted into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and was created by a law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 1, 1943.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt along with civil rights leader and advisor to the War Department, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, championed for the inclusion of Black women in WAC to serve overseas.
In November 1944, the War Department “acquiesced” or reluctantly agreed to enlist Black women according to the Women of the 6888th website, a subset of The Buffalo Soldier Educational and Historical Committee.
The postal battalion consisted of 824 enlisted personnel and 31 officers, all Black, who were recruited from the WAC, the Army Service Forces, and the Army Air Forces. Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Charity Adams Earley was selected to command the battalion.
“They went to the recruitment station and they were barred from applying, one lady had to move to Washington just to apply so this was the beginning of a civil rights movement that people don’t talk about,” Cummings said.
Cummings, also a member of the Buffalo Soldier committee in the East Coast, Washington D.C. area, explained how the military has been on the forefront of integration. “Before the formal movement of integration happened in terms of what history talks about [the] Civil Rights Movement made it a law to discriminate,” Cummings told the AFRO. “You had a whole fraction, a group of Black women, Mary McLeod Bethune, with the help of Roosevelt and his commander standing up for the rights of these women,” she said.
On February 3, 1945, the postal battalion boarded the ship, the Ile de France, headed to Britain and later arrived in Glasgow, Scotland. The women travelled by train to Birmingham, England for their first assignment. “I personally feel that when they boarded those ships to Europe they parted the ocean so the rest of us could follow through,” Cummings said.
Their motto of “No Mail, Low Morale” served as motivation to get the undelivered mail to their appropriate recipients. Work was constant as the unit members were organized into three separate shifts, seven days a week. Still a segregated unit, the women had to eat and sleep in different locations from the White male soldiers.
The American Red Cross did not welcome the Black WACs and in turn Major Adams refused their offer of equipment for a separate recreational facility. When the back log of mail was cleared, the postal battalion sailed to France on June 9, 1945. They arrived in Le Havre and then took a train to Rouen where they encountered another back log of mail in which they cleared, too.
In October 1945 the 6888th moved to Paris where their officers were quartered in the Hôtel États-Unis, and the enlisted women were quartered in the Hôtel Bohy-Lafayette. Due to the end of World War II, the battalion was reduced by nearly 300 personnel, with over 200 more women eligible for discharge in January 1946. By February 1946, the remainder of the unit returned to the United States and was disbanded at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
The women were college educated and went on to pursue successful careers and remain active activists for civil rights of Blacks. “So, you have very highly skilled, highly educated population who came back and became active in the community,” Cummings said.
However, upon their return, Cummings noted that the women did not receive any acknowledgement of their service.
As a member of The Buffalo Soldier Educational and Historical Committee, Cummings is working to help build a monument in honor of the women who served in The Six -Triple Eight.
The committee’s goal is to raise $70,000 by the end of May. Once $70,000 is raised, the process of building the monument and requesting proper paperwork from the secretary of the Army can occur.
Cummings said the monument is an act of, “gratitude and appreciation for their hard work.”
She believes these women have paved the way for others to partake in opportunities.
“If it hadn’t been for their contributions we wouldn’t have the success that we have not just for White women or Blacks, but for the underrepresented population in society as a whole,” Cummings said.