1917-2002 Charity Adams Earley was a pioneer in the success of both women and African Americans in the U.S. Army. She served as one of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) first black officers, and ultimately attained the rank of major.
A Studious Start
Earley was born on December 5, 1917, in Columbia, South Carolina, to a scholarly Methodist minister father and a schoolteacher mother. The oldest of four children, she studied hard during childhood and eventually graduated valedictorian of her class at Booker T. Washington High School. Earley went on to attend Wilberforce University in Ohio, the oldest private black university in the United States. On graduating, she returned to South Carolina to teach and study for a master’s degree. Instead of finishing her degree, however, Earley joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942, setting aside a promising and safe career as a teacher in the middle of World War II.
After she completed basic training, Earley became the first African American woman commissioned by the WAAC, and went on to an officer training program. With the military, and much of the country, still segregated by race, she was placed in charge of a small company of female African American soldiers. Because of the small number of black recruits in the WAAC, Earley and the other black officers trained their companies in a wider variety of skills than was normal, giving soldiers the opportunity to stand out among their white counterparts. During two and half years as one of 39 officers stationed at Iowa’s Fort Des Moines, she attained the rank of major.
The WAAC program was renamed the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and Earley was sent to England in 1944 to lead the first and only company of black WACs on an overseas mission. She commanded a postal directory service unit out of Birmingham. As part of her duty to maintain morale for the women serving in war-torn Europe, Earley supported the creation of a beauty parlor where women could relax and socialize in familiar surroundings. Her salon became so popular that many of the nurses and Red Cross workers serving in the area had to be turned away for lack of time and supplies.
Her success with organizing an efficient team and maintaining morale led Earley to an appointment commanding the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion operating in England and France. At the time, there were more than seven million American troops stationed in Europe, and receiving letters from home was an important way to keep up the morale of the troops on the front lines. The task of sorting and delivering the mail was difficult due to common names, soldiers on secret assignment, and wartime conditions. Earley also was tasked with ensuring that mandated security measures—the reading of soldier’s outgoing mail and the censorship of anything thought to be classified—were strictly followed.
Against the Odds
Reacting to racism, however, caused more problems that it solved, in Earley’s opinion. In her capacity as commander of the 6888th, she insisted that her battalion look past the prejudice directed at them by men returning from the front, and instead create a sense of camaraderie among enlisted personnel and officers. Earley’s efforts, which extended to a U.S. recruitment tour to encourage more women to enlist, were groundbreaking, and eased the inclusion of Blacks and women into military service. After celebrating victory, first in the European theater and then in Japan, Earley returned to the United States and resumed her education.
On completion of a graduate degree in vocational psychology in 1946, Earley took a job at the Veterans Administration in Cleveland, Ohio. But she soon left the military sector and began working in education, serving in administrative positions at the Miller Academy of Fine Arts, the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College, and Georgia State College. After marrying Stanley Earley, Jr., a physician, Earley accompanied him to Zurich, Switzerland, where he was studying. Overseas during peacetime, she built on her interest in psychology by studying Jung’s techniques and learning new languages. In the 1950s, Earley and her husband moved to Dayton, Ohio, and raised two children there.
As a mother, Earley was content to devote herself to community service. She took up volunteer and coordinating duties with the United Way, The Black Leadership Development Program, the American Red Cross, the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League, and the YWCA. In 1989, Earley published a memoir about her military experiences called One Woman’s Army, a book that describes in detail the struggles that she and other black WACs faced during their time in service. Earley died on January 13, 2002, at age 84.
In the decades following World War II, Earley earned increasing recognition for the role she had played in shaping the WAC service and her other contributions to the war effort. In 1979, she was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame, and The Smithsonian Institution ranks her among the 100 most important black women in history But when asked about the struggles she faced as a pioneering African American woman, Earley most often modestly replied, “I just wanted to do my job.”