African American women in the Military

Photo by RODNAE Productions on

Serving in the military is something that not everyone can do. It takes extraordinarily people to be able to become a soldier and to be black and in the military is an amazing accomplishment and being a woman makes it beyond extraordinary. Today we will be looking into who was the first and how African American women have made a pathway in the military for future generations to serve a country that they love to protect.

One local officer is working to bring more diversity and inclusion into the U.S. Navy. Captain Timika (Timi) Lindsay is currently the highest ranking African American woman in the Navy. She is the Chief Diversity Officer and the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. 1949 – First black female Marines enlisted. The first African-American woman, Annie E. Graham of Detroit, Michigan, enlisted in the Marines.

Marcia Carol Martin Anderson (née Mahan; born 1957) is a retired senior officer of the United States Army Reserve. She was the first African-American woman to become a major general in the United States Army Reserve.

Once again, the Air Force, with 13.5 percent, has the largest share of women, and the Marine Corps, with 5.2 percent, has the smallest. The Army, with 11.0 percent women, follows the Air Force; and the Navy and the Coast Guard are made up of 7.3 percent and 6.3 percent women, respectively.

Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, and the first female African-American fighter pilot in the history of that service.

Mildred C. Kelly served in the U.S. Army from March 1947 to April 1976. The Army wasn’t her first career choice. She attended and graduated from Knoxville College in Tennessee with a degree in chemistry. After graduation, she briefly taught high school before deciding to join the Army. In 1972, she became the first Black female Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army. Two years later in 1974, she made ranks of the first Black female command sergeant major at Aberdeen Proving Ground. This made her the first Black woman to hold the highest enlisted position at a major Army installation whose population was predominantly male. After retirement, she continued to serve in a different capacity by remaining active on various boards such as the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Maryland Veterans Commission and the Veterans Advisory Board. Command Sgt. Maj. Mildred C. Kelly passed away from cancer in 2003.

NCO Trailblazers
Mildred C. Kelly

Staff Sgt. Joyce B. Malone: Malone was originally a Fayetteville civic leader who enlisted in the Marines in 1958, where she served four years. Following her service in the Marine Corps in 1962, Malone got married and finished college at Fayetteville State University. A few years went by and while working at Fort Bragg, she decided to join the Army Reserve – Fort Bragg’s 82nd Airborne Division in 1971. In 1974, Malone became the first and the oldest black woman to earn Airborne wings in the United States Army Reserve. By age 38, Malone completed 15 parachute jumps during her time in the Army Reserve.

Brig. Gen. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown: Becoming a nurse was Hazel W. Johnson-Brown’s dream. She attended the Harlem School of Nursing. Her career began at the Harlem Hospital as an operating room nurse after completing her studies. In 1955, seven years after President Truman eliminated segregation in the military, Hazel W. Johnson-Brown made the decision to enlist in the U.S. Army. She impressed her superiors with her incredible talent and taking multiple assignments across the world.

One of Johnson-Brown’s assignments included Japan where she trained nurses on their way to Vietnam. She made history after being promoted in 1979 to brigadier general. With that promotion, she took charge of 7,000 nurses in the Army Nurse Corps, making her the first Black woman general officer to hold that post. When Brig. Gen. Johnson-Brown received her promotion, she said, “Race is an incidence of birth …. I hope the criterion for selection did not include race but competence.” Brig. Gen. Johnson-Brown served in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1983, receiving multiple awards and decorations

 Maj. Gen. Marcelite J. Harris was born in Houston, Texas on Jan. 16, 1943. She graduated from Spelman College, earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in speech and drama. She originally wanted to be an actress, but her plans changed so she signed up for the Air Force. In 1965 she completed Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas and held a variety of assignments in the Air Force.

Harris’ career included many “firsts,” including being the first female aircraft maintenance officer, one of the first two female air officers commanding at the United States Air Force Academy and the Air Force’s first female director of maintenance. She also served as a White House social aide during the Carter administration. Her service medals and decorations include the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation and the Vietnam Service Medal.

Harris retired as a major general in 1997, the highest ranking female officer in the Air Force, and the nation’s highest ranking African-American woman in the Department of Defense. She died in 2018.

Maj. Gen. Marcelite Harris

Sgt. Danyell Wilson: Wilson served in the U.S. Army and became the first African-American woman to earn the prestigious Tomb Guard Badge. She became a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Jan. 22, 1997.

Born in 1974 in Montgomery, Alabama, Wilson joined the Army in February 1993. She was a military police officer assigned to the MP Company, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). She completed testing and a rigorous training period and became part of the Honor Guard Company of The Old Guard.

After receiving the silver emblem, Wilson said she was glad the training was over. “I figured it (finishing the training) was the highest honor,” she said before making her first official “high-visibility” walk.

Susie King Taylor was appointed laundress of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and due to her nursing skills and her ability to read and write, her responsibilities with the regiment grew tremendously. Photo courtesy of U.S. Center for Military History

Susie King Taylor was appointed laundress of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and due to her nursing skills and her ability to read and write, her responsibilities with the regiment grew tremendously. Photo courtesy of U.S. Center for Military History
Susie King Taylor


February is the celebration of African American history and the accomplishments of Black people around the world. There are many female pioneers in African American history with various accomplishments that come to mind. Some of these pioneers are Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Madam C.J. Walker and Shirley Chisholm. Many black women also broke barriers while serving in the U.S. Military. These women worked on the front lines or provided support to U.S. soldiers and civilian employees.

There are many more that we have in history that we should be proud of. These are just a few that I wanted to share with everyone hoping that people can see another side of African American history.

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