H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.

R.I.P. Lieutenant Colonel Charity Edna Adams December 5, 1918-January 13, 2002.

Charity Edna Adams fought Hitler and racism by commanding the first battalion of African-American women to serve overseas.

  Charity Edna Adams (1918-2002) grew up in South Carolina, raised by a Methodist minister father and a schoolteacher mother, who cared so much about her children’s education that she proofread and edited everything they wrote. Majoring in math and physics, Adams also started studying psychology but decided to put off her master’s degree due to the outbreak of World War II and joined the U.S. Army’s Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), renamed the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) the next year.           

Charity Edna Adams

The WAAC was originally founded as a whites-only organization but heavy lobbying by civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune and the support of Eleanor Roosevelt convinced them to allow black women into their ranks. Adams and her African-American comrades had to face the reality of segregation and racism from the very beginning of their service. When they arrived to their first station in Des Moines, a second lieutenant greeted them with a “Will all the colored girls move over on this side,” separating them from the whites. He then read the names of all white girls from a list so they could be led to their quarters, without any explanation for why black women couldn’t get the same treatment.

Adams at her desk with some of her staff

Working hard, Adams became the first commissioned African-American female officer. She soon became a training supervisor at base HQ and was given the task of improving efficiency and job training. She also served as a surveying officer in charge of finding lost property and a summary court officer handling the minor offences of WAC members.

A member of the 6888th with African-American servicemen

In December 1942 she took a train home for the holidays but was barred from a dining room despite her uniform. She was only allowed in after the intervention of a white officer, who then proceeded to share his table with her. Her trip, however, still had an episode of racial prejudice in store for her. Adams’ father was involved in the black rights movement and the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan decided to send him a message at the very same time his daughter was visiting. She and the family spent a night up, waiting with guns at the ready while local KKK members kept the house surrounded until the morning as an act of threat.

Ladies of the 6888th enjoying the snow in Birmingham

By early 1944 Adams’ talent and dedication earned her the rank of major and a place at the head of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-black, all-female unit to be sent to Europe. The unit crossed the Atlantic in February and traveled to Birmingham, England to take over postal duties serving troops in Europe. A local newspaper commented on their arrival: “These WACs are very different from the colored women portrayed on the films, where they are usually either domestics or the outspoken old-retainer type or sloe-eyed sirens given to gaudiness of costume and eccentricity in dress. The WACs have dignity and proper reserve.”

Due to the chaos of the war, especially the recent Battle of the Bulge, the 6888th’s first job was to work through a massive backlog. The stacks of letters reached the ceiling in the converter hangars that served as the post office, some of them two years old. Following the unit motto of “No mail, no morale,” the women worked 24/7 in three shifts, managing to work through the backlog in three months, half the time that was originally allotted to the task, while also reading homebound letters to censor classified information.

Members of the 6888th sorting letters

In addition to the usual difficulties of finding people along a moving front, many letters only gave the first name or nickname of the addressee or were addressed to very common names. Due to their work schedule, inspections always had women missing, either at work or sleeping after their shift. On one such occasion, a general took this as a sign of poor organization and said “I’m going to send a white first lieutenant down here to show you how to run this unit.” “Over my dead body, Sir” – came Adams’ uncompromising reply. Outraged, the general threatened to court-martial her. Adams, in turn, prepared to file charges against him for violating an Allied directive prohibiting language that stresses racial segregation. Both sides agreed to drop the matter and the general later admitted that Adams earned his respect.

Adams inspecting the 6888th

Besides handling mail, Adams also had the task of raising morale among the women helping the war effort in Europe. To this end, she established a beauty parlor where women could relax and socialize. The parlor became so popular that many nurses and Red Cross workers had to be turned away due to a lack of supplies or space. Adams also encouraged the members of her battalion to socialize with white soldiers and locals when off duty to ease the tension of racial prejudice.

Members of the 6888th working together with French civilians

In mid-1945 the unit moved to Rouen, France and then to Paris to handle the delivery of mail to and from more than seven million soldiers. In Rouen the 6888th took part in a parade on the square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake over 500 years earlier. The ladies of the unit became immensely popular with male soldiers on leave, white and black alike. Members of the WAC military police, who weren’t equipped with weapons, had to learn the Japanese martial art of Ju-jitsu to keep unwanted visitors away from the 6888th’s office. After working through another massive backlog, this one containing three-year-old letters, the unit stayed in France after the war to help with civilian mail, returning to the United States in February, 1946. Unlike most soldiers, they received no fanfare or media attention.

Shortly after, Adams retired from the U.S. Army as a Lieutenant Colonel, the highest rank achieved by a black woman in World War II, and finally finished her psychology degree. She spent the rest of her life as a teacher and an active participant in community service.