Aug. 29, 1942
Charity Adams Earley became the U.S. Army’s first Black female officer after joining the Women’s Army Corps.
As she traveled on a train to her family’s home in Columbia, South Carolina, rail workers refused to let her enter the dining car until a fellow officer spoke up, and the two dined together.
Back home, she attended an NAACP meeting, where her father spoke. Before the meeting broke up, Earley and her family learned that the KKK were waiting for them. Her father armed them, and Klansmen never attacked.
Back in the Army, she became the first Black female commanding officer deployed to a theater of war. After arriving in England before Christmas in 1944, she directed a battalion of 855 women whose job it was to take care of the many stacks of undelivered mail to soldiers.
“With the war now at its bloody peak, mail was indispensable for morale, but delivering it had become a towering logistical challenge,” The New York Times wrote. “The backlog, piled haphazardly in cavernous hangars, amounted to more than 17 million letters and packages addressed to Allied military personnel scattered across Europe.”
Earley felt pressure because she knew the “eyes of the public would be upon us, waiting for one slip in our conduct or performance,” she later wrote in her memoir, but she was determined to make them “the best WAC unit ever sent into a foreign theater.”
The unit ran into plenty of challenges, such as many soldiers shared the same name. More than 7,500 Robert Smiths served in the European Theater alone. Commanders wanted her to complete her mission in six months. She and the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion did it in three, women working around the clock to make it happen.
When a U.S. general appeared for a surprise inspection and saw fewer than he expected, Earley explained that a third of them were sleeping because of their round-the-clock work. When the general threatened to replace with a white lieutenant, she stood her ground, saying, “Over my dead body, sir.”
Angered, he wanted to court martial her, but he eventually backed down. When Earley and her unit returned to the U.S., the Army made her a lieutenant colonel — the first Black woman to achieve that rank.
She spent the rest of her life as a civilian, battling for racial justice as an activist and leader in Dayton, Ohio. In 2019, the Army recognized the battalion, awarding it the Meritorious Unit Commendation, but it was too late to honor Adams, who died nearly two decades earlier. At first, it appeared there would be no honor guard available for her funeral, but when news spread, two honor guards — one from the Army and the other from the Air Force, made up mostly of women — “helped lay to rest the commander of the Six Triple Eight and the first Black woman to ever lead American troops overseas.”