A Historical Perspective: Opportunities for African Americans in the Armed Forces

By Wright, Roosevelt, Jr. | Diversity Employers, February 1997 | Go to article overview

A Historical Perspective: Opportunities for African Americans in the Armed Forces


Wright, Roosevelt, Jr., Diversity Employers


African-American legends have provided a tremendous foundation for an array of career opportunities in the U.S, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. These opportunities for those who now sit on the doorsteps of the 21st century have a specific historical connection to a group of special people.

This group, comprising Rev. Adam Clayton Power, Dr. Channing H. Tobias, Lester Granger, Watter White, John Sengstacke, T. Arnold Hill, A. Philip Randolph, Judge William H. Hastie, and most notably, for this article, Dr. Mary Mcleod Bethune, was the leadership force that set the stage for opportunities in the military. Through their dynamic work during an era of racism a half-century ago, these African-American legends put into place the enormous achievements in the armed forces that you see today.

Dr. Mary Mcleod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College and Special Assistant to both the Secretary of War and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a major advocate of opening military occupations to African-Americans. Her close friendship with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt provided prominent approaches in developing armed forces advancements during the 1940s. Dr. Bethunes' tireless work for military officer opportunities has been most historically rooted in her statement, "Our people will never be satisfied until we see black faces in high places."

While growing up in Elizabeth City, NC, home of large Naval and Coast Aviation Installations, my father told me a wonderful story about meeting Dr. Bethune in 1939. He met her at the Mount Lebanon A.M.E. Zion Church, during founders day celebrations for the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Her presentation was a glorious beacon of light in providing directions and solutions for the rectification of career problems facing African Americans.

Further meetings with NCNW chapters throughout the country, and her leadership position with the National Youth Administration, placed Bethune in a strategic position for opening military job doors as World War II began.

Bethune was a sociopolitical catalyst with the right connections, as America entered into WWII. With the conflict widening around the world, her wisdom, genius, and inspirational guidance were sought to improve job conditions and human treatment for African Americans. Her work caused thousands of African-American soldiers, sailors, and marines to refer to her as "Mother Bethune." Her immense success in the art of compromise and political power provided many career milestones for African-American military personnel.

This article will provide some selected historical milestones that were the results of Bethune and other distinguished African-American legends. These special historical moments, within the U.S, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, are the bedrock of today's unlimited career choices for African Americans.

The U.S. Army

Protecting the security of America is the role of the U.S. Army. The present day Army needs around 90,000 new enlistees each year. These men and women find an array of opportunities in the enlisted ranks, ranging from managerial positions to highly complex operational roles in transportation, aviation, weaponry, electronics, computer systems, and logistics. The officer ranks are also challenging with their vast assortment of leadership positions.

Opportunities for African-American women in the U.S. Army of the 1990's are tremendous, but there was a time, before WWII, when they were very few. On 14 May 1942, President Roosevelt signed public law 554, which created the Women's Army Corps. The director was Lt. Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby from Texas. Even then there was major concern about the plight of African-American women. The NCNW requested that Bethune be appointed to a high level policy position to provide guidance and direction. The Secretary of War accepted this request, and named Bethune Special Assistant to the Secretary of War. …

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