On August 12, 1918—one hundred years ago today—Miss Armelda Hattie Greene became the first African American woman to enlist officially in the United States armed forces.
Greene was born in Jackson, Mississippi on August 12, 1888, the oldest child of African American educator Robert Royster Greene and his wife. A graduate of Rust University and Central Tennessee (Walden) College, two of the first colleges founded for African Americans after the Civil War, Robert Royster Greene became a public school principal, then a professor of Latin and Greek at both his alma maters, and finally an administrator in the Railway Mail Service and then the Post Office Department. Armelda followed in his footsteps to become a public school teacher in Jackson.
After an early marriage that ended in divorce, she moved in 1913 or 1914 to Washington, DC, boarding with her younger sister, brother-in-law, and their children. She was employed as a civilian clerk—a relatively new occupation for American women—when America entered World War I four years later.
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels directed a rapid increase in the number of naval vessels when it became clear that America could not remain neutral in the war that had engulfed Europe. To fill manpower gaps, in the spring of 1917 he approved the enlistment of women to backfill shore billets vacated by men reporting for sea duty, and new shore billets created by the Navy’s expansion. Most of the women enlisted as yeomen (clerks, typists, and stenographers); a few served as messmen, cooks, electrician’s mates, telephone operators, and intelligence analysts. By the end of the war, twelve thousand women had served in the Navy. Only fourteen of them are known to have been women of color.
Daniels, a newspaper publisher from North Carolina, was a white supremacist and did not intend for the Navy to enlist black women. Although African American men had served in the Navy since the American Revolution, by 1917 unwritten Jim Crow practices led to their enlistment in limited numbers, almost exclusively as messmen and cooks. Recruiters in Boston, Norfolk, and Washington turned away qualified African American women who attempted to answer the Navy’s call. Armelda Greene had at least one white grandparent; her light skin and facial features led recruiting personnel to assume that she was white. They enrolled her as soon as she completed her enlistment physical.
After Armelda enlisted, her brother-in-law John Temple Risher arranged her transfer from the Aviation Department into the Muster Office. Risher had taken the civil service exam when he arrived in Washington, and the Navy had hired him as a night watchman at the Navy Yard. Charismatic, intelligent, and a superb manager, he worked his way up to a clerical position and then to chief of the Muster Office in the Bureau of Navigation, the office responsible for tracking the attendance and absences of all naval enlisted personnel. Over the next two months he used his influence and cited wartime necessity to ensure that thirteen more African American women and ten black men could enlist as Navy yeomen. All were assigned to the Muster Office.
Armelda Greene’s Navy performance record was exemplary. She was enrolled as a Landsman for Yeoman Fourth Class—the equivalent of today’s undesignated seaman (E-3) striking for the yeoman rating. She earned straight 4.0 marks on a four-point scale for both her professional competence and her conduct at each evaluation period. She qualified by exam for promotion to Yeoman Third Class (E-4) at the first opportunity, and perhaps having trained and supervised the other members of the “Golden Fourteen,” she was promoted to Yeoman Second Class (E-5) upon her honorable discharge.
The Navy directed that all female yeomen be disenrolled by the end of 1919. All had been awarded the World War I Victory Medal.
While only the Golden Fourteen are known by name, Navy manpower figures provided in response to a Congressional inquiry in 1939 suggest that another ten or fifteen African American women may have enlisted in the Navy. After the Armistice in November 1918, the Army Nurse Corps enrolled eighteen African American nurses to serve stateside in hospitals overrun with influenza patients. Journalist Alice Dunbar Nelson believed that a much larger number had served as nurses from the beginning of American involvement in the war, their race unrecognized.
After leaving the service in November 1919, Armelda Greene continued to work in the Department of the Navy as a civilian clerk. Later she moved to Philadelphia, where another younger sister was living, and took a clerical position in the Works Progress Administration. She spoke rarely, if ever, of the role she played in opening the door for African American women to serve their country in the armed forces.