The Hidden History of the First Black Women to Serve in the U.S. NavyHistorians in the News
tags: World War I, African American history, Navy, womens history
WHEN JERRI BELL FIRST WROTE about the Golden Fourteen, their story only took up a sentence. These 14 Black women were the first to serve in the U.S. Navy, and Bell, a former naval officer and historian with the Veteran’s Writing Project, included them in a book about women’s contributions in every American war, co-written with a former Marine. But even after the book was published, Bell couldn’t get their story out of her head.
“It made me kind of mad,” Bell says. “Here are these women, and they were the first! But I think there was also a general attitude at the time that the accomplishments of women were not a big deal. Women were not going to brag.”
Bell was one of a few researchers who have been able to track down documents that acknowledge the lives and work of these Black women. She knew that during World War I, the Fourteen had somehow found employment in the muster roll unit of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C., under officer John T. Risher. One was Risher’s sister-in-law and distant cousin, Armelda Hattie Greene.
The Golden Fourteen worked as yeomen and were tasked with handling administrative and clerical work. They had access to official military records, including the work assignments and locations of sailors. At the time, Black men who enlisted in the Navy could only work as messmen, stewards, or in the engine room, shoveling coal into the furnace. They performed menial labor and weren’t given opportunities to rise in rank.
Bell wasn’t surprised to learn about the barriers faced by service members of color. She knew that Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy at the time, was a documented white supremacist with ties to the Wilmington Massacre, in which a white mob overthrew a local Reconstruction-era government and murdered Black residents. During the First World War, the U.S. Navy maintained the status quo of racism that continued long after. Many Black service members were also targeted by white mobs after the war.
What was surprising was that a legal technicality had paved the way for Black women to work for the Navy more than a century ago. A shortage of clerical workers led then-president Woodrow Wilson to pass the Naval Reserve Act of 1916, which asked for “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful services for coastal defense.” The Golden Fourteen were part of a larger group of over 11,000 women, almost all of them white, who were able to join the navy as yeomanettes, the title given to female yeomen.
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