The 6888th Postal Battalion: A Prelude to E.O. 9981 (Armed Forces Integration)

Major Charity Adams 6888th Commander and Captain Mary Kearney inspecting troops, Birmingham, England February 1945. Photo Courtesy, National Archives

Seventy-four years ago, President Truman recognized the need to reform the military’s diversity and inclusion policies. On July 26, 1948, he signed E.O. 9981 to integrate the Armed Forces, and a month earlier on June 12, 1948, Congress also enacted the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act (Pub. L. 80–625) granting women the right to serve in all military components.

According to the National Archives the Army was the nation’s largest minority employer during WWII. In 1940 African Americans made up almost 10 percent of the U.S. population (12.6 million of a total population of 131 million). Of the 2.5 million African American males draft registrants through December 31, 1945, more than one million were inducted into the Armed Forces.

Despite a ten percent quota, Black women joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later WACs) in 1942 and paved the way for others to serve. The Navy did not authorize Black women until October 1944. In the fall of 1944, the Coast Guard recruited five African American women as reservists. In 1949, Annie Graham became the first black woman to enlist in the Marines.

The 6888th — A Mission Greater than Mail

Due to pressure from civil rights advocates and Advisor to the President, Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune, of the more than 6500 Black WACs and Army nurses, the 855 member 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was the only Black WAC unit sent overseas in early February 1945.

When the 6888th departed from Camp Shanks to sail to Europe, an excerpt from Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune’s telegram referred to the deeper meaning of their mission. “You represent 15 million of us. Your success in this courageous service is ours. Think Well, Realize your individual responsibility. Carve a niche for those who will follow you.”

The 6888th knew that their performance overseas would reflect on other uniformed Black women and those in the civilian population. Led by 26-year-old Major Charity Adams (the first black WAAC commissioned officer in 1942), and with little training in postal operations, the 6888th solved the Army’s mail and morale problems. While stationed in Birmingham, England and working around the clock in austere wartime conditions, the 6888th broke mail sorting records. By processing approximately 65,000 pieces of mail and packages per shift, they cleared a two-three-year mail backlog in three months, well under the Army’s six-month goal. The 6888th then relocated to Rouen and Paris France to clear those mail backlogs, thereby restoring the vital communications between loved ones and the troops serving in the European Theater of Operations.

Impact

E.O. 9981 and Pub. L. 80–625 were enacted because African Americans and women proved that if given training an opportunity, they could perform as well as anyone else. And during WWII they did just that, both at home and abroad. In many cases, they outperformed their peers as evidence by units such as the Tuskegee Airman, the Montford Point Marines, Women Air Service Pilots, and the 6888th. But women and African Americans returned home from war to a society segregated by both gender and race. These pioneer patriots did not receive recognition for their contributions until decades later.

On March 14, 2022, President Biden signed into Public Law 117–97, the Six Triple Eight Congressional Gold Medal, awarding the 6888th the nation’s civilian highest civilian honor. While General George Washington was the first recipient in 1776, less than 200 have been awarded since then. The 6888th is the only all-female military unit to receive the Gold Medal, and Fort Lee is slated to be renamed Fort Gregg-Adams, honoring Charity Adams.

Both EO 9981, Pub. L. 80–625, and subsequent defense policies such as the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act symbolize attempts to eliminate discriminatory behavior and attitudes. Since WWII, gender and racial diversity has increased nearly two-to-three-fold. The Military One Source 2020 demographic profile shows that approximately 48% of the more than 1.3 million active-duty personnel are in a racial minority group (including Hispanic) and 17% identify as female. In the Selected Reserve, the percentages are 41% are in and 21% respectively. The same report states that “the lowest percentage of racial diversity is found among high-ranking officers in all service branches.”

Lieutenant General Donna Martin, The Army Inspector General (Army’s highest ranking Black female) and Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead, Assistant Adjutant General — Army National Guard at the Women’s Memorial’s Congressional Gold Medal Celebration June 15, 2022. Photo courtesy: Gene Russell, Department of Veterans Affairs

Stories such as the 6888th and the achievements of other underrepresented populations provide a deeper understanding, respect, and appreciation of everyone’s value and contributions to military readiness and national security. At all levels, representation matters.

Reference:

Smith, Elaine, Historic Reference Study, Mary McCleod Bethune and the Council of Negro Women, (Alabama: Alabama State University September 2003) 192 2003MaryMcLeodBethuneandtheNationalCouncilofNegroWomen_10930012.pdf

The author is a recipient of the NAACP’s 2022 Jesse Brown Distinguished Leadership Award, selected as a 2020 MOAA Changemaker, and inducted into the 2020 Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame.

Major General (Ret.) Mari K. Eder, U.S. Army author, The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line: Untold Stories of the Women Who Changed the Course of World War II (Feminist History Book for Adults): Eder, Mari: 9781728230924: Amazon.com: Books contributed to this article.

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Col. (Ret.) Edna W. Cummings, U.S. Army

Army Veteran-Six Triple Eight Advocate and Documentary Producer: sharing stories about the only black WACS to serve in Europe during WWII