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Overcoming barriers: African-American women in the military

  • Published
  • By Candy Knight
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
The reasons behind America's Civil War and why people fought are numerous. For one woman, freedom was the only reason needed.

While working for the Union Army as cook and nurse, she was also an armed scout and spy. In fact, she would become the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war when she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.

This woman was none other than Araminta Harriet Ross, better known as Harriet Tubman, the "Moses" of her people, the Underground Railroad conductor who "never lost a passenger."

Harriet Tubman may have been the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War, but she was not the only black woman to serve. During the Civil War, as the number of enlisted black soldiers rose, many of their female family members also found work with the Army as nurses or in support occupations such as medical services, laundry and cooking.

One such hero was Susie King Taylor, a Civil War nurse, cook and laundress, who was raised a slave in Georgia.

King wrote in her diary, "I was very happy to know my efforts were successful in camp, and also felt grateful for the appreciation of my service ... I was glad, to be allowed to go with the regiment, to care for the sick and afflicted comrades."

It is important to remember that in this day when we struggle with budget cuts and sequestration, King served for four years and three months, never receiving any payment or recognition for her service.

During World War II many of the bans and racial quotas in the military were eliminated and black women began serving in different occupations, such as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, the Women's Army Corps, and the Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

The first two black WAVES officers, Harriet Ida Pikens and Frances Wills, were sworn in Dec. 22, 1944. On March 9, 1945, Phyllis Daley became the first black commissioned Navy nurse.

Since the Korean and Vietnam wars, and continuing today, black women have reached some of the highest ranks in the military -- women such as Margaret E. Bailey, who became the first black nurse promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Army Nurse Corps on July 15, 1964. She would later become the first black female colonel.

On Sept. 1, 1979, Hazel W. Johnson achieved another first for black women when she became the first black woman promoted to the general officer ranks.

And let's not forget that in 1997, Army Sergeant Danyell Wilson became the first black woman to earn what is considered the most prestigious job in the military -- guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Nor should we forget how in March 2003, Capt. Vernice Armour, United States Marine Corps, become the first black female combat pilot when she flew with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169 during the invasion of Iraq.

Unlike the days of the Civil War or World War II, in today's military, there are no barriers preventing women from serving in various positions or occupations, particularly since the ban on women serving in combat roles was officially lifted in 2013. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta once stated that women have become an "integral part" of the military, and have demonstrated their willingness to fight.

Although my commentary focused on the accomplishments of African-American women in the military, women of all races must never forget the struggles of our predecessors and the doors they opened for us in our military.