It’s time to give them their flowers!
The United States military has long struggled with racism, with a 2018 survey by the Military Times reporting that more than half of their respondents of color identified with experiencing racism from their peers, Atlas Obscura reports. Despite the moral stain on the armed forces, Black people have long served and fought in nearly every American war. That extends to Black women, whose contributions often went unnoticed and under-documented in the history books. Such is the story of The Golden Fourteen, a group of 14 Black women who made history during World War I as the first Black women to serve in the U.S. Navy.
The women’s stories were most recently brought to light by Jerri Bell, a former naval officer and historian with the Veteran’s Writing Project. While she was working on a book with a former marine, she began to write about the contributions of Black women in the armed forces. While the Golden Fourteen took up only a sentence in that first writing, Bell said she couldn’t seem to get them out of her head.
“It made me kind of mad. Here are these women, and they were the first! But I think there was also a general attitude at the time that the accomplishments of women were not a big deal. Women were not going to brag,” said Bell.
Since then, Bell has tracked down records that acknowledge the work of these women. While much is still not known about them, what is known is remarkable. Her research discovered that the women were employed in the muster roll unit of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. under the supervision of officer John T. Risher. At the time, Black men could only work in the Navy as stewards, messmen, or in the coal room performing menial labor. On the contrary, the Golden Fourteen worked as yeomen, part of the Navy’s front staff, performing administrative and clerical work. They managed official military records that included the locations of various sailors and their work assignments.
Still, the secretary of the Navy at the time, Josephus Daniels, was a documented white supremacist with ties to the Wilmington Massacre where Black residents were murdered by a mob of white people, which made the Golden Fourteen’s presence even more intriguing. Turns out, a legal technicality allowed them entrance into the Navy, giving way to integration. In response to a shortage of clerical servicemen, former President Woodrow Wilson passed the Naval Reserve Act of 1916, which called for “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful services for coastal defense.” The fourteen women were part of a massive group of more than 11,000 women who answered the call, joining the Navy as yeomanettes.
The women included Armelda Hattie Green, Officer Richer’s sister-in-law and distant cousin, and Ruth Ann Welbourn, whose family was able to confirm her identity. Tracey L. Brown was just 10 years old when she learned of her great grandmother, who she affectionately called Nan. Welborn’s father was formerly enslaved, escaping to freedom before meeting her mother, Elexine Beckley, who came from an affluent Black family. She was afforded the best education growing up, graduating Dunbar High School in 1918 before joining the Naval Reserve. Brown said that she didn’t realize her great-grandmother’s time in the Navy was so historic.
“I had known that she was one of very few Black women there. But I didn’t know that there had been 14 - I wasn’t expecting that many. I remember hearing about that, as a child, that there was some sort of scheme in how they were even able to enlist. I know it wasn’t simple,” said Brown.
There are few archival records that speak of the women’s time in the Navy at length, but the ones that do tell a story of women who kept their heads down and did the work. In The History of the World War for Human Rights, published in 1919, sociologist Kelly Miller writes about the Golden Fourteen.
“This is quite a novel experiment. As it is the first time in the history of the Navy of the United States that colored women have been employed in any clerical capacity…It was reserved to young colored women to invade successfully the yeoman branch, hereby establishing a precedent,” wrote Miller.
Bell has been collecting information on the women for years, collecting archival materials she’s found in military and civilian personnel records from the National Archives. Many of the women’s stories lie in their family members, others in various records from state to state. However, with all of the fourteen reportedly deceased, the details of their legacies now exist without nuance or first-hand accounts.
“It is believed that all of the Black Navy women from the First World War have now passed away. Regrettably, the ‘golden’ place they deserved as pioneers in the annals of Afro-American as well as naval and women’s history was never accorded them during their lifetimes; except perhaps within their immediate family circles,” wrote Richard E. Miller, a historian and naval veteran.
However, we will not forget their accomplishments in death, and we want to make sure we amplify the stories that were forgotten in the history books. Regina Akers, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command works tirelessly to center Black women in military history. Akers works to uncover the stories of the Golden Fourteen and Bell’s work, as a white naval officer, to amplify it, are all equally important. Their accomplishments in the face of the overt racism of the time is astonishing and echoes the stories of so many other Black people who made historic strides for us to afford the freedoms we have now.
“I think it’s important to remember that the efforts to bring about equal opportunity are part of the larger civil rights movement of that time period. There has always been a civil rights movement in the U.S. because there have always been people advocating for change and fighting for their rights,” said Akers.
We salute every member of The Golden Fourteen and thank them immensely for their contributions.
Meet The Golden Fourteen, the first Black women to serve in the U.S. Navy. Photo Courtesy of Kelly Miller’s History of the World War for Human Rights/Atlas Obscura