Do an image search of the word “soldier” online, and the pictures revealed will be overwhelmingly white and male. However, African-Americans and women have a long history of contributing to the U.S. armed forces. All-Black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts as early as the Revolutionary War, and during WWI, the Marine Corps and U.S. Navy allowed women to enlist.
Today, Black women enlist in the military at much higher rates than white or Hispanic women, and they represent nearly a third of all women in the armed forces. According to the Pew Research Center, while Black men represent about 16 percent of the male enlisted population, 31 percent of women enlisted are Black.
Local army veteran Kimberly Williams says military service has become a family tradition. Her mother, brothers, cousins and even her high school sweetheart-turned-husband are veterans, and she has ancestors who served as early as WWI.
But when Veterans Day rolls around each year, the celebration can be bittersweet. Williams shares a Nov. 11 birthday with her mother, who passed away after a battle with cancer. On Veterans Day, Williams often finds herself reflecting on the life of the woman she calls her “superhero.”
Her mother, Annette Louise Lewis, graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1958 and entered the Army two years later. Stationed at Fort McClellan in Alabama, Lewis was excited to explore life outside of the Midwest. But not all of Lewis’ experiences were positive.
“During the time she was in the Army, it was segregated. In the South, there were times when they would pull up to eat in Alabama, her white counterparts could go into the cafeteria and eat, but they had to bring the Black soldiers food back onto the bus. So she wasn’t allowed to eat with them while she was serving the country in uniform. She also slept in segregated barracks, yet she served with integrity and dedication,” said Williams.
Despite the discrimination Lewis faced, she encouraged Williams to follow in her footsteps. Williams enlisted in the Army and traveled to Europe and Germany with her husband. She appreciates her daughter, Adrienne Dodson, having the opportunity to see the world.
“I exposed my child to something different, something outside of Indianapolis, Indiana. She was in Germany exposed to the culture and language and was taught in a Department of Defense school. It was an adventure for me as we traveled and saw things we wouldn’t usually see,” said Williams.
Some of Williams’ favorite memories include holidays overseas. She recalls sharing the Thanksgiving table with young military families from a variety of backgrounds.
“We would have Latinos, Asians, caucasians and a diverse group of people around the table. We brought our traditions to that, and we celebrated our Thanksgiving and Christmases away from home. They became like family, and we met people who will be our friends for life,” said Williams.
Army veteran Frida Davis was also inspired by family to serve. When Davis was only 7 years old, her uncle visited her family’s home dressed in his Navy service uniform. He shared stories of his travels and experiences, and sparked Davis’ interest in the armed forces. At age 17, Davis decided she wanted to enlist. Though her brother had recently enlisted in the Marine Corps, her father told her she had to reconsider.
“My father was a WWII veteran, and he was very adamant that the military was not a place for a female, especially a Black female. Black men were discriminated against in WWII, so he asked, ‘What do you think they would do to you?’ So I let it go, and I waited,” explained Davis.
When the opportunity to join the Army presented itself again, she was a 27-year-old single mother of two looking for ways to earn extra income. The goal of building a better life for her children inspired Davis to join the Kentucky National Guard in 1976, where she served as a platoon leader and later became the first-ever Black female recruiter in Kentucky.
“Being a female (in the National Guard) during that time was very unheard of, especially a Black female. Most of the men who surrounded me were white. We had to keep up with the guys, and that was hard. It tested your stamina but made you mentally strong,” said Davis. “When my company was preparing to go overseas, my father gave me an ultimatum. … He said, ‘Either you will come home, or you will sign your two babies over to me before you go to Germany.’ … When I had to make that choice, my children came first.”
Davis’ daughter, Ximenla Garrido, followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a medic in the Army at age 28. Her priority was education and providing a better life for her children, but she feels she gained more than she expected.
“I got to travel, and I learned so much about myself as far as being a leader and what you can do when you put your mind to it,” said Garrido. “There are women who have this issue that they can’t speak out; when you go, you learn to be outspoken. I have so much pride, and that is something no one can take.”
Williams feels that despite the dangers of war, women should not count themselves out when it comes to service.
“There is danger in being a soldier, but women are natural protectors,” she said. “Women make very good soldiers, because a woman will do whatever is necessary to get back home to her family.”
Cathay Williams, born a slave in the state of Missouri, was the first known African-American woman to enlist in the Army. Williams disguised herself as a man, changed her name to William Cathy and was declared fit for duty in 1866. She was assigned to Company A of the 38th Infantry, one of four all-Black units, and only her cousin enlisted in the same regiment knew her secret.