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Oral History with Charity Adams Earley

Charity Adams Earley Oral History
Courtesy of the US Army Women's Museum

More than one million Black Americans served in the US armed forces during World War II. At the time, the US military was racially segregated, Jim Crow laws legally enforced racial segregation, and Black Americans encountered racial discrimination across the country.1 Although they had often been treated as second-class citizens, Black Americans enlisted and served with distinction in every theater of the war. Many of them supported the idea of fighting for a “double victory”—a victory for freedom abroad and a victory for equal rights at home.2

In 1942, the US Army created new opportunities for women to serve in the military. Female recruits were originally placed into a separate auxiliary branch that was converted to active duty status in summer 1943. Like the rest of the US armed forces, the newly formed Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was segregated by race.3 In early 1945, Charity Edna Adams (later Charity Adams Earley) became the first Black female officer to command a unit of Black American women deployed to Europe.

In the featured oral history, Earley describes how she challenged racial segregation as the commanding officer of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion of the WAC—a unit that was made up entirely of Black women.4 She had been working as a teacher and attending graduate school when she applied to join the Army in 1942. She chose to enlist because there were few other career options for Black women in the South at the time. The “uncertainty of the Army” appealed to Earley over the “dullness and rigidity” of other job opportunities.5

The 6888th battalion—known as the “Six Triple Eight”—was deployed to Birmingham, England to deal with a massive amount of undelivered mail that had been sent to US soldiers fighting in Europe. While in the UK, Earley rejected segregated recreational facilities for the women in her battalion, telling the Red Cross that the women of the “Six Triple Eight” would only use them “over my dead body.”6 Earley left the WAC in March 1946 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Segregation remained official policy in the US military throughout World War II, but individual protests like Earley’s contributed to a growing chorus of voices calling for a racially integrated military. President Harry S. Truman finally abolished segregation in the armed forces in 1948.7

"Jim Crow" refers to a legal system designed to create and sustain racial hierarchy in American society. For more information, see the Jim Crow Museum website

For more primary sources on the "Double V" campaign and Black Americans' responses to World War II, see the related Experiencing History items, "Should I Sacrifice to Live 'Half-American'" and "Can America Afford to Condemn Hitler for His Racial Policies?" To learn more about the experiences of Black Americans in the armed forces during World War II, see Alexander M. Bielakowski, Proud Warriors: African American Combat Units in World War II (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2021); and Christopher Paul Moore, Fighting for America: Black Soldiers, the Unsung Heroes of World War II (New York: One World, 2005).

To learn more about the experiences of Black women during World War II, see Maureen Honey, Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999). For more about the WAC, see Mattie E. Treadwell, The Women's Army Corps (Washington, DC: Center of Military History of the United States Army, 1991).

For more on the 6888th, see Charity Adams Earley, One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1989); and Brenda L. Moore, To Serve My Country, to Serve My Race: The Story of the Only African American WACS Stationed Overseas during World War II (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

For more about her personal experiences, see Charity Adams Earley, One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1989).

To learn more about Black servicemembers' encounters with racial segregation in the armed forces during World War II, see the related Experiencing History item, Oral History with Leon Bass.

Executive Order 9981, issued July 26, 1948, established the President's Committee on Equality and Opportunity in the Armed Services, which committed the government to integrating the segregated military.

"Kilroy Was Here" was a popular piece of cartoonish graffiti used to mark the progress of American soldiers in World War II. 

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Charity Adams Earley: The citizens received us quite in hand, but with a lot of curiosity. The American troops received us in lots of ways. White GIs, there were no white WACs near us in Birmingham, the white GIs told tales about us. The Red Cross wanted to segregate us and the British just wanted to visit us, see what was going on. But I refused to accept any segregated facilities that they wanted to create for them. And, uh, after that, they didn't try. 

Interviewer: Very fine. Were there oth.. were there white WACs in the area? 

Charity Adams Earley: There were not any white WACs in Birmingham, but there were white WACs in lots of places in UK and they all used the same WAC recreational hotel in London. And this is where the real problem came in. The Red Cross wanted to set up another hotel for the Black WACs and I promised them that it would be over my dead body before anybody slept there and nobody slept there to my knowledge. 

Interviewer: So it went off when... you just... 

Charity Adams Earley: When I got to France. They'd said, they said they'd had trouble with me and I said, No, I had trouble with you. And they promised me I wouldn't have any trouble with them.

Interviewer: Outstanding. Were the French as receptive or as curious as the English or...

Charity Adams Earley: The French were receptive until after V-E Day. If you will recall, they all wanted us to go home the day after the...  

Immediately.

...Right after VE-Day. Don't pick up your equipment, anything, just go home. And the signs on the walls in Paris, for example, that had said "Kilroy was here."1 Many young service people don't know about that sign, I don't think. But when they said "Kilroy was here," underneath was written "Yankee go home." This was within a week of the VE-day. 

Interviewer: As early as that. 

Charity Adams Earley: As early as that. 

Interviewer: Amazing. So you were there for actually the birth of an organization activating the battalion, bringing it over. 

Charity Adams Earley: That's right. 

Interviewer: And performing the very important mission of getting the mail out to the soldiers. 

Interviewer: And when we arrived, the Battle of the Bulge, which was between December the 15th, '45, '44 and January 15th '45, had created an enormous backlog of mail. Even all the mail which had gone to the continent for American GIs, had been moved back to UK, to England because the fighting was so severe and at that point they didn't know which way the fighting was going to go. So our first job was to deliver the packages and the Christmas packages that had piled up and the Christmas mail that had piled up from Christmas 1944, that was still back. They had to get it out. And that was our first job. We worked three shifts, 8 hours a day, and we did get a commendation for delivering that mail at top speed. 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the US Army Women's Museum
Accession Number OH.2011.167
Date of Interview
May 1990
Duration 00:02:53
Time Selection 09:34–22:27
Interviewee
Charity Adams Earley
Language(s)
English
Interview Type Oral History
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