Cathay Williams Was the Army’s Only Female Buffalo Soldier
and First Black Female Enlistee
“William Cathay enlisted in the U.S. Army on Nov. 15, 1866, for a three-year term. Since the Army didn’t do full physical examinations during this period, it would allow Cathay to serve out most of the contract, even though William Cathay was actually Cathay Williams, a woman posing as a man. But her service started long before she was old enough to enlist.
She would end her Army career as the Army’s only female Buffalo Soldier and first Black woman to enlist.
She was born in 1844 in Missouri to a free father and an enslaved woman, which made her legally a slave. When the Union Army captured Jefferson City, slaves were considered “contraband” so Cathay Williams and slaves like her supported the Union Army as camp followers. She and others cooked for the troops, cleaned their laundry or acted as nurses.
According to stories told by Williams after her enlistment and discharge, she followed the Union Army throughout the west and was present for many of its most important engagements, including the Siege of Vicksburg and Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea.
She had begun supporting the Union Army at age 17. By the time the war ended, she was 22 years old, but the Army was all she’d known as an adult. With the Civil War over and slaves across the country freed, she enlisted in the Army, posing as William Cathay and was sent to the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment. The unit was organized in 1866 as one of six segregated Black infantry regiments, which became collectively known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” They were the first all-Black infantry regiments of the regular Army formed during peacetime.
The 38th’s primary mission was protecting the construction of the intercontinental railroads, the first of which was completed in 1869, when the 38th merged with the 41st Infantry Regiment. The 41st was also a segregated unit, which had spent the time in Louisiana and Texas. The only thing that kept Williams from completing her enlistment was a disease that would be eliminated in the United States 20 years later: smallpox. She contracted the virus not long after signing up for the Army. After recovering, she rejoined the 38th, which was then in New Mexico for the railroads’ east-west continental connection.
After she suffered years of stress on her body, frequent hospitalizations and never fully recovered from her smallpox infection, Army doctors finally took a closer look at William Cathay and discovered the truth. She was honorably discharged in 1868 and moved to Fort Union, New Mexico, where she went to work as a cook.
The Buffalo Soldiers went on to fight in the Indian Wars of the American West and the Spanish-American War. Cathay Williams moved to Colorado. She became a seamstress as her story remained untold in the wider press for almost a decade. In 1874, a reporter from the St. Louis Daily Times heard rumors of a Black woman who had served in and was honorably discharged from the Army and published an account two years later. Williams’ medical troubles followed her for the rest of her life. She was known to have suffered from neuralgia (pain along certain nerves) and diabetes (from which she lost all her toes), but her applications for medical pensions from the Army were denied. No one knows precisely when or where she died or at what age.
The Global Association of Buffalo Soldiers Recognition and Riding Club Inc. finally recognized Williams’ historic service after almost 150 years. In 2015, it unveiled a monument bench for Pvt. Cathay Williams on the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia.”
– Blake Stilwell
“There is no gravestone marking the final resting place of Cathay Williams. Nor is there one for her alter ego, Private William Cathey, who served with the 38th Infantry on the western frontier from 1866 to 1868. “
African American WACS
Group of African American members of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) posing for a group photo in uniform during World War 2, 1940. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images).
The Senate passed legislation to award the only all-Black Women’s Army Corps (WACs) deployed overseas during World War II the Congressional Gold Medal. The “Six Triple Eight” self-contained postal unit completed the seemingly impossible task of tackling the mail backlog during the final months of the war.
Who were the WACs and what did they do?
What was the purpose of WAC and waves?
Do the WACs still exist?
Nurses In The Southwest Pacific
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion helped connect soldiers on the front lines with their families back home.
“In 1927, an unlikely friendship arose between educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune and future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, based on a shared belief in the power of education. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, Bethune served as an advisor on minority issues, and eventually was named Director of Negro Affairs in 1939. Her work with the administration led to the creation of the Black Cabinet, an informal group of advisors who worked on issues facing Black communities across the United States. The Black Cabinet helped the Roosevelt administration draft executive orders that ended the exclusion of Black Americans in the Army during World War II. In 1944, with the support of the First Lady, Bethune pushed for the admittance of Black women in the military, through inclusion in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), a branch of the Army created in 1942. Though there was a backlash against having women in uniform from conservative elements in military leadership, tens of thousands of women were trained in a variety of non-combat specialties that were thought appropriate for women at the time: switchboard operation, baking, mechanics, stenography, postal work, and more.
All were critical to the operation of the Army during wartime. Sending and receiving mail, for example, was a lifeline for soldiers, and the only way to stay connected to the friends and families they left behind. In 1945 alone, more than 3.3 billion pieces of mail went through the military postal service. Around 8 million Americans were stationed in Europe that year. The task of organizing and delivering all that mail was daunting, and a shortage of qualified postal workers led to a massive backlog. Army officers reported that the undelivered mail was hurting morale. Something had to be done, and a unique WAC battalion answered the call
THE TASK OF SIFTING THROUGH this growing stack of letters and packages—some of which had been mailed years before—was given to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-Black, all-female battalion to serve overseas during World War II. The 6888th—nicknamed “Six Triple Eight” and led by Major Charity Adams Earley—was originally expected to sort through 7 million pieces of mail and packages in Birmingham, England, over the course of six months. They did the job in three.”
Black American Nurses
Fast Facts about Women in the Wartime Industry
By 1944, 1 out of 5 defense workers was a woman who had recently been a student
By 1944 1 out of 3 defense workers were former full-time homemakers
World War II was the first time in U.S. history married women outnumbered single women workers. 1
The largest employers of women during World War II were airplane manufacturers such as Boeing Aircraft, Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, and Douglass Aircraft Company. Other major employers included Chrysler, Goodyear, and Ford.
Between 1940 and 1960 the number of working women doubled, rising from 15% of the workforce to 30%. Working mothers increased by 400%.
Most trade unions maintained separate seniority lists for men and women but by 1944 more than 3 million women made up 22% of all trade union membership in the U.S.
A survey taken immediately after WWII by the Bureau of Women Workers revealed 75% of women workers preferred to remain employed outside their homes 2
By 1955, more women worked in the labor force than during World War II
During the Great Depression, (1929-World War II) women were discouraged from working so the few jobs available could go to male breadwinners. In order to encourage women into the workforce, the federal government’s War Manpower Commission, War Production Board, and defense industries launched a massive campaign centered around recruitment posters. The substantial need for war supplies coupled with the staggering number of men drafted into the war created mass vacancies in factories across the nation.
Economist Theresa Wolfson described the tension women felt in 1942 after the Bombing of Pearl Harbor:
“It is not easy to forget the propaganda of two decades [during the Great Depression] even in the face of a national emergency such as a great war. Women themselves doubted their ability to do a man’s job. Married women with families were loath to leave their homes; society had made so little provision for the thousands of jobs that a homemaker must tackle. A
Who were the Black Rosies?
In 1945, in a written report compiled at the end of the war, Kathryn Blood, a researcher or the Department of Labor studying the wartime contributions of Black women, wrote the following about the Black Rosies:
“The contribution [of Black women] is one which this nation would be unwise to forget or evaluate falsely.”
But for decades, the efforts of Black Rosies went largely unrecognized—until African American historians, playwrights and filmmakers like Mr. Cooke began, in the 21st century, shedding light on their contributions.
“These women, I truly believe, are some of the most significant women of the 20th century,” says Mr. Cooke.
“At the time, we didn’t really think about it as wanting recognition,” says Mrs. Wilson. “But now it does feel nice to know that the work we did is being remembered.”
“Members of the battalion received the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal, but wider recognition for their accomplishments didn’t come for another 60 years. In 2009, three former members of the unit, Alyce Dixon, Mary Ragland, and Gladys Shuster Carter, attended a commendation ceremony at the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. On November 30, 2018, a monument dedicated to the 6888th was built at the Buffalo Soldier Monument Park in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, consisting of a 25-inch bronze bust of commanding officer Major Adams. The back panel has the names of the 800-plus women who were assigned to the unit, by state of origin. On March 14, 2022, President Joe Biden signed a bill awarding the battalion the Congressional Gold Medal.
The legacy of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion goes beyond their incredible work during World War II. The women and their story have been included in exhibits, books, documentaries, and even a forthcoming Netflix film directed by Tyler Perry, called Six Triple Eight and starring Kerry Washington and Oprah Winfrey. Even as Jim Crow laws persisted at home, the 6888th provided an intimate and necessary connection between soldiers on the front line and their families on the home front. They left their mark in hearts and minds.”