Charity Edna Adams Earley

Columbia native Charity Adams Earley remembered a nation where even those who were willing to sacrifice their lives to save their country had to live with prejudice. It came as no surprise that when she entered the military she lived in segregated quarters with other African-Americans and served in a segregated unit. As a young girl, she had learned that there was a wide gulf between blacks and whites. Blacks sat in the back of the bus, drank from segregated water fountains, and rode on segregated elevators. Some stores refused to serve African-Americans; in those that did, African-Americans could expect to be addressed only by their first names, never by their titles. In her autobiography Earley recounted the story of a white vendor around the age of her father who drove up one day and greeted her father as "Uncle," a term left over from enslavement. Her father's response was, " is your mother, my sister?" The vendor quickly left and did not return to the neighborhood (Earley 6).

Born in 1918, the oldest of four children of a minister and a teacher, she grew up in a family where reading was as natural as breathing. The house was always filled with books of all kinds. Her father was a scholar who was fluent in Greek and Hebrew. Her mother made sure she used the English language correctly, even marking with a red pen the letters that Charity wrote to her from college. Not surprisingly, Adams graduated from high school without ever having missed a day. As valedictorian of Booker T. Washington High School, she could pick from among the top black colleges. She selected Wilberforce, located in Ohio. Adjusting to a midwestern college was a shock for a girl from the small-town South, but she found friends among other preachers' kids (PK's). She became involved in campus activities, worked part-time, and majored in math and physics. After graduation, Adams returned to Columbia and taught for four years. In the summers she attended graduate school at Ohio State University. She had discovered a love for vocational psychology and hoped to earn a master's degree. In June of 1942 she received a letter which was to change her life. It was an invitation to join the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, which later became the Women's Army Corps, and it focused on the career and leadership opportunities available. Adams sent in the application and promptly forgot all about it. On her way back to Ohio for graduate school, she was met at the station in Knoxville by her aunt with a message to call home. The Army was interested. Friends tried to discourage her from leaving the security of teaching, but she was ready for a change. Before long she had completed the arduous process of health exams and interviews, and in July of 1942, Charity Adams was sworn into the WAAC.

Joining the other women who would be part of this first officer candidate class for the WAAC, Adams found herself stationed in Des Moines. It was to be her home for almost three years. At first the women found themselves the center of attention, with the press photographing their every activity. The twenty-five women, black and white, had become close, but the Army did not allow that closeness to last. Having traveled together, the women now found themselves segregated by race. After they had settled in, the African-American women were visited by their commanding officer, who apologized for the Army's policy. All of the women, regardless of race, had similar quarters, and all had to adjust to the lack of privacy.

Within a few days, other women had arrived. Adams was part of the Third Platoon, thirty-nine African-American women who had joined the military for a variety of reasons: to go to work, to change their lives, or to help to bring about a quick end to the war. There was a quota of ten percent African-American women. Some other women's service organizations had no intention of offering any opportunities to African-American women at all. Charity Earley comments that despite their differences, all these women had much in common. No real class differences existed among African-Americans in that day, despite differences in income and education. All had lived in a world of daily discrimination. The Third Platoon became close as they trained, supporting and bickering with each other much like members of a family, Earley recounts in her autobiography. The women learned to drill, to read maps, to prepare for inspections, and in time, they became soldiers. In August of 1942, Charity Edna Adams became the first African-American to be commissioned an officer in the WAAC. Alphabetically, she should have been the first woman of either race sworn in, but for this graduation, the Army broke with tradition and each class was sworn in by platoon.

Adams was soon assigned to the Third Company, Third Training Regiment, which had two white and one black platoons. The Army assigned all of the black enlisted women here and placed them all in two Companies. Soon the new officers were training the enlisted personnel, and in December the first group of WAAC trainees was sent out to various army posts. Because African-American recruits were few in number, Adams and the other black officers trained them in a wide variety of procedures, which normally would have been handled by specialist companies. Always one to see a glass as half full rather than half empty, Adams comments that as a result, the African-American officers gained knowledge and skills quickly that white officers learned over a much longer period of time.

Soon after Adams was promoted from third to first officer, she was on her way home for a visit. The train and all other accomodations in the South were still segregated. Despite her uniform, Adams was denied entry into the dining car of the train until a white Southerner, a second lieutenant, spoke up for her, and then joined her for a meal. Coming home to Columbia, Adams experienced the nascent civil rights movement and its opposition. She attended the annual meeting of the local NAACP chapter, listening to her father, the chapter president, speak. Before the meeting had ended, she was warned that the Ku Klux Klan was waiting at her house. When they returned home, the Klan had cars lining the street. Adams' father brought out his shotguns and ammunition, gave one to his wife and children, and left to join the NAACP state president, who was home alone and also under siege. Rev. Adams had told his family not to provoke the Klan. After a sleepless night, the Klansmen left both houses at dawn.

Over the next few years Adams remained on duty at Fort Des Moines. The troops planted trees and shrubs and their efforts at beautification won them many inspections. At one point, they were told to ease up on the planting - the base was beginning to look too much like a civilian facility! Fitting uniforms and handling paperwork were among the most time-consuming components of the job. Keeping track of supplies and getting the right number of pillows and sheets could be a problem. Many visitors came to see the women train and as the months rolled by, the male trainers left and women officers handled more and more of the actual training. Adams' company was the "show company of the post" (Earley 84). In mid-1943 Adams received a new assignment, as a training supervisor at base headquarters. She spent much of her time watching classes of trainees, both white and black, and became friendly with the other supervisors, who were all white women. In June she received the first of many assignments away from headquarters, to Washington, D.C. Soon she was off on an inspection tour to Massachusetts, New Jersey and North Carolina. Other trips followed. In early 1944, Adams, now officially a part of the Army's new Women's Army Corp, was given the assignment of Training Center (TC) control officer. She looked for ways to improve efficiency and improve job training. As more and more of the male officers left, Adams took on more responsibilities. At one point she was juggling nine new assignments with her other responsibilities, but she kept up with all of them. As summary court officer, she handled trials for women charged with minor offenses, an unpleasant but necessary task. As surveying officer, she had to find lost property and determine whether company property was actually missing. For much of this time, she was the only African-American officer assigned to the TC Headquarters.

Living in the South, Adams had experienced the sham of "separate but equal", so when the Army proposed creating a separate training regiment for African-Americans, she argued against it. Most of the black junior officers liked the idea, which the Army thought would provide more promotional opportunities to African-American officers. The President's "Negro advisor" had proposed such a plan. Adams was dubious. When told that she, as the ranking African-American officer, would be appointed to head such a regiment, she said she would not do it. The Army avoided a potential crisis when it shelved the plan.

Adams, now a major, traveled frequently. She often served as convoy officer when troops were transferred to other posts. Traveling was, to put it mildly, an adventure for an African-American woman. On one train trip, a white woman tried to have her removed from the car, claiming that since she was African-American, she must be an imposter in an officer's uniform. Another time, while Adams was sitting with her parents in the "colored" waiting room in the Atlanta train station, military police asked to see her identification. When Adams asked why she was being questioned, the MP's said someone had questioned her status. Adams promptly took out pen and paper and recorded the names and ranks of the men so that she could report the incident. On another trip the steward in the dining car told her no tables were available even though several were empty. But it was 1944, and African-American attitudes about such unfair treatment were beginning to change. The waiters, all African-American, put down their trays and began to leave. The steward promptly seated Adams, and the waiters picked up their trays.

In December of 1944, the Army gave Adams an overseas assignment. White WACs had already gone to Europe, and now the first contingent of black WACs was about to go. Adams had mixed feelings, but as she states in her autobiography, she did not want to miss out on this opportunity to break new ground. She purchased a heavy winter coat for Europe and double the amount of supplies suggested, not knowing how long the war would last. When she arrived in London, Adams found herself for the first time among people of all races and religions. She was no longer a lone minority.

With another officer, she traveled to Scotland to meet her troops arriving by ship. A few weeks earlier, Adams had made a brief trip to Paris to make some courtesy calls. She had figuratively put her foot in her mouth when she told the commanding general that her troops were "the best marching troops you will ever see" (Earley 139). Now she would have to prove that to the general, who would review the troops only two days after they arrived in Scotland, exhausted, dirty and seasick. All of the officers joined in to prepare for the general's review. Local citizens in Birmingham, England, where the troops were stationed, came out in droves to watch. The parade of troops was successful. Adams and her troops, which became part of the postal directory service, then went to work. Adams had to see that housing was available as troops arrived, plan their assignments, and see that the troops settled in and were put to work.

Maintaining morale was an important part of her job at the Training Center. Counseling, recreation, food and shelter were provided. But for African-American women in the Europe of 1945, such small morale-builders as beauty parlors were unavailable. With the help of other officers, Adams managed to requisition appropriate supplies for the women and a place for them to have their hair done. It became so popular that appointments for the many outsiders, such as nurses and Red Cross workers, sometimes had to be limited. This was one small but important way that Adams was able to help the women under her command, who were far from home and in a strange environment.

In March of 1945, Adams assumed command of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, responsible for delivering mail to approximately seven million American troops stationed in Europe. Receiving mail was important for the morale of men on the front. To deliver that mail, women worked three shifts, seven days a week. Letters had to be sorted and sent to the right John Smith or Joe Jones, often a difficult task. Wartime security required that letters sent home had to be read and censored, a task usually assigned to the company officers. As the assignment to Birmingham was supposed to be temporary, Adams had trouble getting equipment for her facility, even as days stretched into weeks.

The women began to socialize with the citizens of Birmingham, most of whom had had little or no previous contact with blacks. Initially some of the white soldiers told tall tales to the locals, which created some prejudice. However, the facility was located in a residential area, and the women gradually began to socialize with their neighbors. Both sides needed to make adjustments. In her autobiography Adams tells the story of a woman who came to see her in her office and accepted an invitation to lunch. When Adams apologized for serving the meat of the day, Spam, the woman replied that she had thought that the Americans made that only for the British to eat! Her whole attitude about Spam changed. Later, a young British man Adams had met asked her out. He had overcome his own "English prejudice" against blacks. She had to overcome her own hesitation about going out with a white man. Growing up in the South had conditioned her against interracial dating. She did date the man several times, putting into practise her own often stated belief that "people...[are] people, regardless of race" (Earley 156).

The death of President Roosevelt came as a shock to Adams and many other black soldiers. They saw the President as a supporter of policies that helped African-Americans. As ranking officer, Adams had to represent the United States at memorial services held in the area and make arrangements for other officers to be present. Race was irrelevant at that moment. About thirty services were held in Birmingham alone.

Later in April of 1945, the Army sent Adams to the Continent, traveling between Paris and Rouen to prepare for the movement of the 6888th to Rouen. In May of 1945, Adams arrived in Paris on a trip, noting the large crowds and unaware at the time that it was VE Day (Victory in Europe). Crowds of happy French kissed Americans, offered them drinks, and relieved them of "souvenirs," such as caps and the braid on their uniform sleeves. Adams arrived at her office in less than her usual neat and trim state. The following day she went to Rouen to set up her new post. Supplies were arriving and there was much work to be done. Adams remained in Rouen with the postal unit for the next several months and celebrated VJ Day (Victory in Japan) with the rest of the troops.

As the war began to wind down, old problems arose once again. Many men were coming through the area, and they were not accustomed to dealing with female soldiers. Many of the men, Adams writes, resented the presence of women in the military and especially resented the presence of African-American women. Adams had to look out for her troops and try to keep things on an even keel. She felt that doing her job well and avoiding antagonizing anyone was important .

With the end of the war, some of the women began to leave, and in late 1945, the 6888th was moved to Paris. Finally, with a much smaller unit, the Army ordered Adams back home to an assignment at WAC headquarters at the Pentagon. At this point she decided it was time to leave the service. She was not interested in an assignment at the Pentagon. Military service had been a daily challenge. She wanted to face new challenges in civilian life, where racism remained more of a problem than in the military. Adams left the service in March of 1946, having been promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. She was the highest ranking black female officer in the WACs.

Adams returned to school to earn a master's degree in vocational psychology at Ohio State. During the next several years as she gained experience, she moved quickly from one job to another. Her first civilian jobs were in Ohio, where she worked for the Veterans Administration and for Miller Music Academy before moving to Nashville, Tennessee to take a position at Tennessee A & I as director of student personnel. She returned briefly to the South to take a position at Georgia State College in Savannah as director of student personnel and as assistant professor of education. Following her marriage in 1949 to a medical student, Stanley A. Earley, Jr., she moved with him to Switzerland where he attended medical school. With her usual determination, she set about to learn to speak German and then began taking psychology courses there. Returning to the U.S., the family settled in Dayton, Ohio.

In addition to raising a son and a daughter who are themselves professionals, Charity Adams Earley devoted much of her life after her family's return to the U.S. to community service. Organizations she served for many years included the 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. She was a volunteer with the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League, and the YWCA. Sometimes she was a "token" woman or black, but as she herself has commented, she was highly qualified for all the positions she held. In 1989 she published a book about her military experiences, One Woman's Army, and was interviewed on National Public Radio. Her book was reprinted in 1996.

Earley's hard work earned her many recognitions and honors. 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. She received a Senior Citizens Golden Watch Award in 1987, a service to the community award from the Ohio State Senate in 1989, the "Mark of Excellence" from the Dayton chapter of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators in 1990, and honorary doctorates from Wilberforce University and the University of Dayton in 1991. The Montgomery County Board of Commissioners named her as their citizen of the year in 1991, citing a long list of accomplishments that included her work on the Human Services Levy Council, her efforts in the area of indigent prisoner care, her fund-raising efforts for various community projects, and her work with Parity 2000, developing a strategic plan for the black community. Dayton Power and Light Company established a scholarship in her name at Wilberforce University to honor her for twelve years of service on the board in 1991. In 1993 she was inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame. In 1995, Earley was asked to introduce President Clinton at a Salute to African-Americans in World War II, in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian held a program in her honor at the National Postal Museum in 1996. Earley 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.

American society has changed in many ways since the days when Charity Earley and over one million other African-Americans served their country during the second World War. Fifty years after President Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military in 1948, Defense Secretary William Cohen led Earley onto the stage at Norfolk State University . There he gave commissions to 31 graduates of a historically black college that has produced many African-American military officers. In his May 1998 speech, Cohen pointed out that there are still few African-American officers, but that much progress has been made. "African Americans are flying more combat aircraft, commanding more ships, leading more troops, serving more senior civilian leadership positions and bearing more stars on their shoulders than ever before," Cohen said ("Military's Success"). Charity Earley will be remembered for many "firsts," as a role model for both African-Americans and for women in and out of the military. But perhaps her own answer to questions about her groundbreaking activities is most telling: "I just wanted to do my job" (Gasior, "History Maker").


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last updated 6/10/02


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