Lt. Colonel Charity Adams was the first female black officer in the Women’s Air Corps (WAC).
Charity Adams ( 5 December 1918 – 13 January 2002)
Charity Adams was born in Kittrell, North Carolina, just north of Durham and Raleigh, though the family soon moved to Columbia, South Carolina. Her father, Rev. Eugene Adams, was a minister in the African Methodist Church, and her mother was a school teacher. Rev. Adams was a scholar, fluent in Hebrew and Greek. She grew up surrounded by books. In her home, education was extremely important. Her high school, Booker T. Washington HS, opened in 1916. Charity loved to learn, and though growing up in the segregated system of the day, she never missed a day of high school and graduated valedictorian. Her mother even marked the letters she wrote home in red pen, to make sure her daughter learned proper English composition.
In Charity’s life, segregation and discrimination were part and parcel of everything, but she and her family refused to be defined by it. She tells a story about her father – a white salesman came into the neighborhood one day and knocked at their door. The custom at the time was to address all black people by their first name, never last, and certainly not with a title like Reverend. This salesman did worse, calling her father Uncle, a term dating to the days of slavery. Her father responded, “And how is your mother, my sister?” The salesman left and never returned to the neighborhood. Her next door neighbors were whites, Greeks by ancestry. The neighbor children were her best friends, but as soon as she entered school, they were no longer allowed to play together.
In her autobiography, she records: “
Even before my schooling began I had witnessed one of the most visible evidences of southern bigotry. From the second-story porch of our downtown town parsonage my brother and I, seated on our father’s lap, watched one of the largest Ku Klux Klan parades ever held.Charity Adams Earley. One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (Texas A & M University Military History Series, #12) (Kindle Locations 51-52). Kindle Edition.
Long walks to school were routine, but in high school, she had to walk through an area with a shopping center where the patrons were primarily white. As long as she kept her eyes down and moved quickly, it usually went without incident – but at least once a week she was subjected to catcalls and racial slurs.
Whether or not to attend college was never really a question. Charity could have her pick among the top black colleges. She selected Wilberforce University just outside Dayton, Ohio, the nation’s oldest private, historically black university-owned and operated by African Americans. Its roots trace back to its founding in 1856.
“When I boarded the train for the eighteen-hour trip to Wilberforce, Ohio, my father’s advice was short. “We have tried to teach you right from wrong. Just do right.”Charity Adams Earley. One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (Texas A & M University Military History Series, #12) (Kindle Locations 135-136). Kindle Edition.
She sought out friends among other “preacher’s kids”, majored in math and physics, worked at a part-time job all through college, and was involved with the Women’s Self-Government Association, the NAACP, the YMCA, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Literary Society.
After graduation, she returned home to Columbia and taught school for four years. Many of her colleagues were only high school graduates – Charity says that blacks had to be twice as qualified for equivalent jobs. She became interested in vocational psychology as a method to improve job prospects for children and decided to study at Ohio State University for a master’s. She began attending in the summers, like many teachers seeking advanced degrees.
Then a letter arrived that changed her life forever. It was an invitation to apply for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. The dean of women at Wilberforce recommended her. Charity was thrilled initially, and expected the army would be just as thrilled to have her. She applied, and expected acceptance within twenty-four hours, despite discouragement from family and friends. When the Army didn’t respond, she threw up her hands in disgust at such an inefficient organization and forgot about it. At the end of the summer, as she took the train back to Columbia to begin a new year of teaching, she found her aunt waiting for her at the stop in Knoxville, Tn. Her aunt hunted her down through the “colored” cars, and excitedly announced, “The Army is interested.” She was told to call immediately. She asked the railroad to hold the train, but they would not. However, the conductor, white, had a moment of compassion and accompanied her to make the call. She had to report to Atlanta by 8 AM. Knowing that was impossible, she managed to get the train to wait a little longer, and called around the army chain of command, eventually reaching a captain who happened to be from South Carolina. He was so happy to speak to someone from home, of any color, that he quickly telegrammed around, and got her appointment and records changed to Fort Hayes, in Columbus.
A new life
Originally, the WAAC was patterned after a similar British organization, and slated for eleven thousand volunteers. After all, why would a woman want to be in the army? And no one thought them capable of complex tasks – by doing the necessary menial and the mundane, they would free men to fight. The response took the army brass completely by surprise. There were 55,000 applications for those 11,000 positions. The command expanded the quota first to 25,000, then 150,000. Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, a pioneering black educator, was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and sponsored many black women chosen as officers. Forty women were chosen as officer candidates – there was a quota of ten percent African American. Adams recalls that in the interview, the board was composed of all white officers, one woman. They asked “a lot of silly questions”. Asked if she were well-read, she gave a discourse on The Sun is My Undoing, a novel on the evils of slave trading. As she left the interview, Adams heard the woman say, “Let’s take her, and see if she’s as good as she thinks she is.” On arriving home after the initial interview, she found family and friends suddenly accepting and admiring her choice. She was confident of the Army’s acceptance.
Adams wasn’t surprised to find prejudice in the army. Though initially, the white and black women were together, and friendships were formed, by the time their train reached Des Moines and the beginning of training, the separation became obvious. Separate barracks, separate training, separate opportunities.
She writes: “Only attitudinal changes and opportunity will assure integration. Some areas of our society have moved faster than others. “Negro” was the accepted racial designation during World War II, although though the term “colored” was also commonly used. “Black,” now generally accepted, was a derogatory and inflammatory applicative before the 1960s.”Charity Adams Earley. One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (Texas A & M University Military History Series, #12) (Kindle Locations 38-40). Kindle Edition.
At the swearing-in ceremony, July 1942, there were eight women to be sworn in, with Adams being the only black. The press was in attendance, due to the historic nature of the ceremony, and the women became minor celebrities. Due to her last name, and being sworn in alphabetically, Adams was first – with some embarrassment on the part of the officials, because no one had noted she was a black woman being sworn in before the whites.
On a visit home, despite her uniform and lieutenant’s insignia, she wasn’t allowed in the train dining car until a white lieutenant spoke for her and invited her to her table. Back in Columbia, the Klan was so incensed at her celebrity that they surrounded her house, making threats and a sleepless night. Her mother sat up all night with a loaded shotgun as her father left to help defend the local NAACP president, also under siege.
Her status as an officer didn’t have increased opportunity. She trained the black enlisted women in more areas and specialties than white officers were permitted to train the white enlisted, because there were fewer of them. Adams counted that as a plus. Despite being cited as the model company of the WAAC, they were assigned to landscaping the military facility. Eventually they had to be told to scale back, because the fort was beginning to look like a civilian park.
As the war progressed, fewer male officers were available for routine stateside duties. At one point Adams was juggling nine different assignments – and being successful in all of them. She was promoted to captain, then major.
In December 1944, word came down that a Negro unit of WACs was to go overseas, as a few white WAC regiments already had. At first, Adams wasn’t sure how she felt about it, but after consideration, and the hint of promotion, she went. She was to fly, and her stomach wasn’t sure about the idea. On arrival, they trained, went to Paris to meet with General Davis, and back to London. Adams commanded the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
“Our preparation was intense: gas mask drills, obstacle course drills, classroom training, clothes packing exercises, physical examination, and close order drill. The officers and I were busy with equipment requisitions even though we knew neither where we were going nor what we were going to do when we got there.” Charity Adams Earley. One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (Texas A & M University Military History Series, #12) (Kindle Locations 1661-1662). Kindle Edition.
Discrimination followed Adams over the ocean. Despite her record, and her rank, when she made reservations for dinner at the officers club, and showed up with other female Negro WAC officers, they refused to seat her – they were suddenly booked.
There were several loud remarks. “What the hell are those niggers doing in here?” “Get them out of here.” “They have some nerve.” – Charity Adams
Charity Adams and her group said they would wait. When it was clear that they wouldn’t leave, many of the white officers stood, left their dinners, and went into the night.
The enlisted WACs arrived by ship, exhausted, bedraggled, and it was Adams’ job to have them ready for review by the commanding general, General John Lee, better known by his nickname “Jesus Christ Himself”. With her combined leadership style of encouragement and command, her brigade assembled, passed inspection, and sparkled.
On her watch, thousands upon thousands of letters and military correspondence reached their intended recipients. She routed supplies, and every form of written communication. She actively fought a smear campaign that attempted to portray the WACs as amoral trollops.
As the war wound down, there was less need of her services. When informed that she would be assigned a desk job in the Pentagon, Charity Adams decided it was time to leave the military. Back home in Dayton, she became a champion of programs to help indigent children. She served with United Way, the Black Leadership Development Program (as co-director), the Board of Directors of Dayton Power and Light, the Dayton Metro Housing Authority, Dayton Opera Company, the board of governors of the American Red Cross, and the board of trustees of Sinclair Community College.
The Dayton Daily News named her one of the top ten women of the Miami Valley in 1965. She was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979. In 1982 the Smithsonian Institution included her in its list of the 110 most important historical Black women, Black Women Against the Odds. e Smithsonian held a program in her honor at the National Postal Museum in 1996. Adams has also been recognized in her native state. She was inducted into the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame in 1991. Earley was included in the 1997 edition of the BellSouth African-American History Calendar. After a long life of service to her country and her community, Earley died at the age of 83, on January 13, 2002, in Dayton, Ohio.