Cover Story: Black History Month Part I: 3 Women Touched by Military Service
In honor of Black History Month, Veterans Advantage celebrates the contributions of Black women in our armed forces. Black women make up about a third of the female population in the military. Three particular women have paved the way for the success of Black women by achieving outstanding accomplishments in their field and making history in their positions.
Hazel Johnson-Brown was the first Black woman to earn both the ranks of General and Chief of the Army Nurse Corps in 1979. She served in the Army from 1955-1983, enlisting just seven years after segregation in the military was eliminated. Ebony Magazine listed her as "one of the real 'heavies' in her field" at the time. One of seven children, she grew up in Malvern, PA and moved to New York City after high school to attend the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. She earned a nursing degree from Villanova and a masters in teaching from Columbia. After beginning her nursing career at Harlem Hospital, she went on to serve around the world, including in Japan where she trained nurses on their way to Vietnam.
24 years into her service, she was named the first Black female general, leading 7,000 nurses in the Army Nurse Corps. During Johnson-Brown's promotion she was quoted, saying "Race is an incidence of birth…I hope the criterion for selection did not include race but competence."
Michelle Howard was the first woman to become a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy in 2014 and the first Black woman to captain a U.S. naval ship in 1999. Howard was born into a military family on March Air Force Base (now March Air Reserve Base) in California in 1960. She was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy in 1978 and was one of only seven Black women in the school’s class of 1,363 students. President Gerald Ford had signed the Military Procurement Bill just a few years earlier in 1975, allowing for admission of women into military academies.
Her early-career sea tours were aboard USS Hunley and USS Lexington. She was awarded numerous accolades and decorations in her career as she climbed the ranks.
At the 2020 Massachusetts Conference for Women, she touted, “Some days, you’ve just got to get your warrior on and take that first step. And when you do, bring everybody behind you and don’t care what they look like –because the diversity of the team is what will allow you to lead through change and surprises. They’ll get you to the right place and the right ideas that will allow you to be successful, allow the team to be successful, and allow the organization to be successful.”
Howard was appointed as the 38th vice-chief of naval operations (VCNO), which made her the second highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Navy and the first woman in such an honorable position, which she held for two years. She retired from the Navy in 2017 after 35 years of service.
Claudine Gay will become the first Black president of Harvard University in July 2023 - and she comes from a military family. She didn’t serve herself, but her father, a Haitian immigrant, was in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and served in Saudi Arabia.
“They came to the U.S. with very little and put themselves through college while raising our family,” Gay told the Harvard Gazette. “My mom became a registered nurse and my dad a civil engineer, and it was the City College of New York that made those careers possible…my parents believed that education opens every door.” She joked that they only gave her three options of courses of study: engineering, medicine, or law, which she said she’s “sure that other kids of immigrant parents can relate to.” Gay spent part of her childhood abroad due to her father’s military post.
In addition to being the first Black president of the prestigious University, Gay is only the second female leader in Harvard’s 386-year history.
Gay earned a degree in economics from Stanford in 1992 and completed her Ph.D. In government at Harvard in 1998. A member of the Harvard faculty since 2006 and the FAS dean of social science since 2015, Gay was the Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government and of African and African American Studies, and is the founding chair of Harvard’s Inequality in America Initiative. Her new position as the first Black president at Harvard University was announced in December. At the announcement, she said, “As I start my tenure, there’s so much more for me to discover about the institution that I love, and I look forward to doing all of that with our whole community.”