February 16: Remembering Wilberforce University’s Charity Adams Earley

Charity Adams Earley graduated from Wilberforce University and became the first Black woman officer in the Women’s Army Auxilliary Corps. After lobbying the Pentagon to let Black women serve overseas, she became the first commanding officer of the first unit of Black women in the Corps overseas in WWII. In just three years, she achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel, and retired as the highest ranking Black woman in the military.

Not only did she have to fight against men who didn’t want women in their “man’s army,” Lt. Col. Adams and her infantry had to fight against whites who didn’t want Blacks in the Army, let alone in positions of authority. According to one source, “During a time of significant discrimination, Lt. Col. Adams’ unprecedented roles in the military and as an unofficial ambassador for equality were an inspiration to those around her.”

The Smithsonian Institution ranks her among the 100 most important black women in history, but when asked about the struggles she faced as a pioneer in the Army, Earley reportedly most often modestly replied, “I just wanted to do my job.”

More accurately, she recounted in her autobiography, “One Woman’s Army,” she was dampened by segregation and the treatment of Black soldiers, and that “put a damper on thoughts of the future.” She was hyper conscious of the disadvantages posed by both her race and her gender, and as such, “My only ambition was to do a good job each day and let the next day wait its turn,” she wrote.

By the time she would serve as commander of the overseas unit, she had begun to fight back, asking her unit not to settle for segregated quarters and urging them to socialize with the white soldiers and citizens to create camaraderie among enlisted personnel. In one incident, a general threatened to assign a white first lieutenant to “show [her] how to run this unit,” to which she replied, “Over my dead body, sir.” According to The New York Times, “The general threatened to court-martial Major Adams for that remark, and she, in turn, prepared to file charges against him for disobeying a directive from Allied headquarters to refrain from language stressing racial segregation. The matter was dropped by both sides, and the general later told Major Adams he had come to respect her.”

Charity Adams came from a family of educators. She described her father as “a scholar,” someone who “could, and would, read Greek and Hebrew” newspapers well into his retirement. He worked his way through Biddle College — now Johnson C. Smith University — and instilled the value of education into his children. After graduating from Biddle, he would go on to Payne Theological Seminary — the nation’s oldest free-standing Black seminary in the country. Her mother, a school teacher, taught the students to read as soon as they were old enough, and worked them ahead in their studies. Charity started school in the second grade, graduating from Booker T. Washington High School valedictorian before enrolling at Wilberforce University on scholarship. In the 1930s, she recalled in her book, all of the top Negro students attended Howard, Fisk, or Wilberforce universities.

“There were some small differences between the colleges in terms of social atmosphere and location, but I picked Wilberforce because it had the earliest opening date, a bit of information I refrained from telling my parents until years later,” she wrote.

She majored in mathematics, Latin, and physics, and minored in history while taking education classes to enable her to follow her mother’s footsteps as a teacher. She recalls that when she went away to college, her mother made a habit of correcting in red ink the letters Charity would return home and sending them back to her daughter. This persisted, she said, until her engagement announcement appeared in the newspaper years later, but Charity said once she saw red marks on an error, she never made the same mistake again.

Following graduation, she taught middle school math and science in her native South Carolina, while taking graduate courses in Ohio. After her Army career, she would serve as dean of student personnel services at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University), and later dean of students at Georgia State College (now Savannah State University).

Today, there is an all-girls school named for her in Dayton, Ohio.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com