The Golden Fourteen, Plus
by Richard E. Miller
Among the better known “firsts” in Afro-American military/naval history is the commissioning of the first group of Black Navy line officers during the Second World War. Although the episode in 1944 was a classic example of governmental tokenism, the men have been feted in recent years and become popularly known as the “Golden Thirteen”. Meanwhile, there existed another group of Black naval pioneers whose remarkable place in our history has remained all but forgotten. It has been difficult to determine their precise number, but they justly deserve to be heralded as “golden” in their own right. The “sailors” in question were the Black women of an earlier generation who served as enlisted “Yeomenettes” or, more correctly, “Yeomen (Female)” during the First World War.
In an official response to a congressional inquiry in 1939, the Navy reported that twenty-four women were among the 6,751 Americans of African descent who served in its ranks during the “great” war of 1917-18. Despite this and occasional references to as many as “thirty” Black enlisted women, most popular histories continue to assert that Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills became the first Black women in the Navy when they reported for WAVE officer candidate training in December 1944 after two years of political pressure.
Nevertheless, at least fourteen Black women did serve as uniformed naval personnel during the First World War, working efficiently, apparently without great controversy, and certainly with little fanfare as petty officers in the muster roll section of the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. No archival records have been located, and what seems to be the only extant examination of their pioneering service is contained in The History of the World War for Human Rights by Kelly Miller, the well-known Black sociologist and educator who at the time of its publication (1919) was dean of the college of arts and sciences at Howard University. His book is a big, far-ranging and well-illustrated study of the “World War” from the Black perspective. His chapter on “The Negro in the Navy” is especially valuable, containing exclusive information about Black sailors in action during the Spanish-American War as well as WWI. In the case of the Navy women, it appears to be based on the author’s personal acquaintance with his subjects.
In the Smithsonian Institution’s current  exhibit on women in the armed forces at the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. it is awkwardly proclaimed that the Black women worked in racially segregated offices at the Navy Department and were limited in their duties to handling the records of African-American personnel. Professor Miller paints a somewhat more appreciative picture of their services, informing his readers that in 1917 there was
a widespread demand upon the part of citizens of the country... for accurate and specific information concerning the whereabouts of their kinsmen in the naval service, a demand which was practically impossible to comply with in view of the ancient methods in vogue at the time in the file section of the [Navy’s] bureau of navigation [predecessor to its bureau of personnel], and in further view of the fact of the unprecedented expansion of the enlisted personnel of the navy....
Enter John T. Risher, Navy Department civil servant in Washington, D.C., to whom was entrusted “the very essential duty of chief of the muster roll section...a colored man...given plenary power to engage and select his corps of assistants.”
The enlisted women of WWI, Black and White alike, served in Navy clerical positions in lieu of both civil service personnel and Navy enlisted men, the latter thus being“released” for duty in the fighting fleet. Even before the war, large numbers of women were employed as clerks in the Navy Department, but when emergency expansion became necessary it was felt that the Civil Service Commission could not produce the required man-power. The alternative of enlisting trained, working women into the uniformed service was chosen when it was determined that no legal barriers then existed to doing so. Curiously, the idea of women in uniform (even in non-combatant support roles) seems to have been less controversial in 1917 than it would be a quarter century later during WWII; likewise, the employment of Black women in such roles--at least within the segregated confines of the muster section’s offices. Kelly Miller provided this description:
Mr. Risher determined immediately in the face of all opposing precedents, to fully utilize the services, abilities and talents of the colored youth of the country... . In consequence, more than a dozen young colored women have been engaged in the capacity of yeowomen in this muster section. 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. And it may be noted that while many young colored men have enlisted in the mess branch of the service, it was reserved to young colored women to invade successfully the yeoman branch, hereby establishing a precedent. There [sic] are all cool, clear-headed and well-poised, evincing at all times in the language of a white chief yeowoman: “A tidiness and appropriate demeanor both on and off duty which the girls of the white race might do well to emulate.”
Kelly Miller was unique in celebrating what he saw as the “precedents” established and the progress made by Blacks in naval service (particularly the “experiment” involving Mr. Risher’s ladies) during the First World War. Ironically, even as his History was being published in 1919, the experience of the African-American sailor was slipping into its historical nadir. The pioneering Black Yeomen (F) along with their White sisters in the naval reserve force were all gone by the end of 1919. Meanwhile, and despite their significant presence in the Navy during war and peace for over a century, new Black male enlistments--whether for general service or duty as officer servants in the messman’s branch--were likewise halted altogether. The few Black men who remained in the regular Navy were allowed to re-enlist, but no new Black recruits were accepted until December 1932 when they were restricted by practice if not by statute to duty as mess attendants. Not until the half-hearted steps taken after Pearl Harbor would Black men and women advance again along the rough road toward racial equality in the U.S. Navy.
Kelly Miller identified fourteen women on Risher’s staff, twelve of whom appear in the photographs reproduced from his History that accompany this article. Miller failed to attach names to faces; but four of the ladies have been recognized by John T. Risher’s son, Watson.
Born in 1924, Watson Risher recalls that sixteen Black women had been assigned to the muster role office and that several of them latter became prominent figures in post-war Washington’s Black, middle-class society. In photograph “A” the second lady from the right is Watson’s own aunt, Miss Armelda Greene (later Mrs. Armelda Greene Vawter), the sister of John T. Risher’s wife, Anne. Second from the left in the front row is Miss “Josie” Washington. In the back row, third from the left is Miss Catherine E. Finch, the adopted daughter of John T. Risher’s uncle who later married Mr. Brown Boyd, one of the Black enlisted men who also worked on the elder Risher’s staff. Third from the right in the rear is Miss Sara Davis.
An article in the Washington Post in 1992 celebrated the 75th wedding anniversary of Pierre “Mac” Taylor and his wife, the former Yeoman (F) Sara Davis. Mac and Sara were both then 94 years old, and Sara had long since retired after a 23 year career as a civilian clerk at the Navy Department where she had once served in uniform;
Among the Yeomen (F) listed by Miller but not present in either photo is Miss Ruth Wellborn, the grandmother of the late Secretary of Commerce, Ronald H. Brown.
In conversation with Secretary Brown prior to his untimely death and with members of the Risher family while researching this article in 1995, the great modesty with which the women (the grand and great-grandmothers of the current generation) regarded their wartime service was clearly evident. Others might consider their being among the first women to wear the Navy’s uniform something profound, but the reflections of the descendants were matter of fact. Indeed, Secretary Brown remarked that he had never thought of his Grandmother Ruth as a “veteran” or a Navy pioneer. He did not know her well, but he had sometimes wondered how she had come to be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.
John T. Risher passed away in 1948, remembered most notably for his later accomplishments as chief clerk to the U.S. Senate Postal Service Committee in which role his influence is credited with preventing the worst effects of the Woodrow Wilson administration’s infamous racial segregation policy from infecting the U.S. Post Office Department. He is recognizable in photograph “B” as the third gentleman in civilian attire from the left, on the end of the top row. (Also in this photo is Brown Boyd, sixth enlisted man from the right.) 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. Since some sources have indicated that as many as thirty were enlisted, Black women may have served in locations other than Risher’s muster role office. The fourteen or more who did serve there can be said to have made an important contribution to the war effort along with their male associates. In addition to John T. Risher himself, the entire group has been named by Kelly Miller as follows:
Civil Service employees: Albert D. Smith of Texas; David C. Johnson of Texas; George W. Beasley of Massachusetts; and W.T. Howard of Louisiana.
Young men of the Naval Reserve Force: William R. Minor of Virginia; L.D. Boyd and Brown Boyd of Virginia; Mintor G. Edwards of Mississippi; Fred Jolie of Louisiana; M.T. Malvan of Washington, D.C.; U.S. Brooks, Thomas C. Bowler, and Albert L. Gaskins of Washington, D.C.; Daniel Vickers of Alabama; and Mr. Fuller [sic].
Yeomen (F): Armelda H. Greene of Mississippi; Pocahontas A. Jackson of Mississippi; Catherine E. Finch of Mississippi; Fannie A. Foote of Texas; Ruth A. Wellborn of Washington, D.C.; Olga F. Jones of Washington, D.C.; Sarah Davis of Maryland; Sarah E. Howard of Mississippi; Marie E. Mitchell of Washington, D.C.; Anna G. Smallwood of Washington, D.C.; Maud C. Williams of Texas; Carroll E. Washington of Mississippi; Joseph [sic] B. Washington of Mississippi; and Inez B. McIntosh of Mississippi.
. Kelly Miller. The History of the World War for Human Rights. Washington, D.C.: Jenkins and Keller, 1919 (reprinted, 1969 by Negro Universities Press, Division of Greenwood Publishing Corp., New York); p. 596.
. Ibid.; p. 597.
. Kelly Miller; p. 597.
. Author’s telephone conversation with Watson Risher, December 28, 1996.
. Courtland Milloy. “A Love Story of Historic Proportions”, Washington Post, Final Edition. Washington, D.C. Sunday, 20 December 1992. Section B, Metro, p.1.
. Author’s telephone conversation with Ronald H. Brown, November 16, 1995. Since his tragic death in 1996, Secretary Brown (himself formerly an Army officer) has also rested in Arlington National Cemetery.