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Five African-American women who made U.S. military history

Maj. Gen. Marcelite J. Harris was the first woman aircraft maintenance officer, one of the first two women air officers commanding at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the first woman deputy commander for maintenance. She also served as a White House social aide during the Carter administration.

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – This article was submitted by Trishawn Smith and Bridgette Baldwin as part of the AFSAC Special Emphasis Program for Black History Month, February 2021.

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.

Command Sgt. Maj. Mildred C. Kelly: 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.

SSgt. 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, Staff Sergeant Joyce B. Malone became the first black woman and the oldest 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 Brig. Gen. 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” and “I hope the criterion for selection did not include race but competence.” Gen. Johnson-Brown served in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1983, receiving multiple awards and decorations.

Maj. Gen. Marcelite J. Harris: Harris was born in Houston, Texas on January 16, 1943. She graduated from Spelman College, earning her B.A. 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. 

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.