Mustering Out: the Navy’s First Black Yeowomen
By Cara Moore Lebonick
via the National Archives' Rediscovering Black History web site
The United States entered the Great War, now known as World War I (WWI), with a surge of new enlisted and conscripted soldiers hitherto unseen. These new soldiers went through various mustering depending on their branch of service. For the U.S. Navy (USN), one division monitored and tracked all of these soldiers throughout the war: the Mustering Personnel Division. It was lead by John T. Risher, a Black seaman, and the active service personnel for the bulk of U.S. involvement in WWI were Black Yeowomen (a Naval member who performs administrative duties).
These first Black yeowomen to serve in the U.S. Navy were later referred to as the “Golden Fourteen (14),” a nod to the Golden 13, the first Black Navy Officers who would not come until WWII. These fourteen women were first written about by Kelly Miller. There, he provided a listing of their names. These names had some spelling variations that made future research more difficult, but not impossible thanks to their available National Archives Catalog entries.
While Black individuals had an established history in the military leading up to WWI, in the USN most Black seamen served as non yeoman in the mess department. Black and white women also had military related history, largely limited to civilian or nursing roles. The 1917 draft included Black men for the first time, but the Navy still limited the roles they could hold in their service. They were allowed to serve on ships with white seamen but those who remained stateside were limited.
Women were not subject to the draft and Black women, therefore, followed the same role limitations as Black men. They were not thought to be part of the Navy yeoman rank prior to President Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981, which officially desegregated the Armed Forces. In Marie Mitchell’s Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) we can see that she was serving in the mess unit prior to her transfer.
The beginning of women in the Navy starts with the loophole of the Naval Reserve Act allowing women to enlist, a fact exposed by Loretta[o] P. Walsh. She enlisted in the Naval Reserves on March 17, 1917 as a Yeoman (F), which would later become known also as Yeowoman and Yeomanette. As the history goes, more white women followed by enlisting and filling clerical vacancies as Yeoman (F), with the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels in full support. Armelda H. Greene, though, enlisted August 13, 1918 becoming a Black Yeoman (F). She was assigned to the “Division of Enlisted Personnel, Mustering”, referred to as the Muster Roll Division, the first of the Golden 14.
Contrary to what some histories may claim, the records of the Golden 14 are not lost, it just takes a bit of specialized reading and interpretation of records to piece together the whole unit. For example, Kathryn E(ugenia) Boyd nee Finch (one of the 14), is commonly misspelled as Catherine. Misspelling the name can make it difficult to discern if the correct individual has been identified. Through these women’s records we can glimpse not just Black service in the Navy, but the service of Black females decades prior.
Read the entire article on the Rediscovering Black History web site here:
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