Charity Edna Adams was no ordinary woman in any sense of the word.
Her life was shaped by the environment into which she was born into as an African-American woman in Columbia, South Carolina in 1918. South Carolina was the first state to break away from the Union at the beginning of the Civil War. The first shots fired in the rebellion were fired at Fort Sumpter in the harbor of Charleston, SC, and General Sherman had devastated South Carolina toward the end of the rebellion. South Carolina was still a hotbed of racism and the Klu Klux Klan was a very powerful entity and would remain so during much of Adams’ life.
Adams’ parents were both highly educated individuals. Her father was a pastor and was fluent in both Greek and Hebrew, which meant that he could read and study the scriptures in their original texts. Her mother was a teacher who was dedicated to educating her children to the highest degree. She would take the influences of both parents to heart and would graduate high school as her class valedictorian. She would go on to study math and physics at Wilberforce College, then to Ohio State University to earn a master’s degree in vocational psychology, while working full time as a teacher.
According to War History Online, she received a letter out of the blue in June of 1942 inviting her to join the newly forming Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. On a whim, she filled out the application and, as such things go, she found herself being sworn in the following month. Her family did not approve.
That July she was assigned to a training group at an Army base near Des Moines, Iowa. She was surprised to find that the group she was assigned to was, at the time, integrated. The press found out about it and articles were written that brought attention to the experiment and, to no one’s surprise, the Army segregated the group. By August she became the first commissioned African-American female officer. The Third Training Group at that time had two white and one black platoon. Adams was placed in the latter.
In December, after her graduation from the Training Group, she was on a train going home for the holidays dressed in her officer’s uniform. She was refused service in the dining car until a white lieutenant defended her. She was reluctantly allowed to eat in the dining car and that white officer “joined her for the meal.”
On her return home to Columbia for the holidays, the family found itself at the center of racial tension that got very personal for them. Adams’ father had recently become the president of the local branch of the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan did not like it. The Klan surrounded their home and stayed throughout the night. Adams and the rest of the family spent a sleepless night, armed to the teeth anticipating that things would not go well. Apparently, the Klan felt it had made its point and left their siege in the morning. Adams decided that, given the opportunities she had been given, she would have to do something about the stereotypes that too many whites had about African-Americans.
Charity Adams went on to become a Training Supervisor and was so effective at it that the Army started sending her around the country to other bases to share her expertise. She would become the Training Center Control Officer, then Surveying Officer in charge of lost property, and then a Summary Court Officer in charge of women’s trials.
In 1944, as a major now, she was put in charge of the first black WAAC unit sent to Europe. They became the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. They inherited a mess. They offices were in an unheated warehouse in Birmingham, England and were charged with fixing the mail delivery system for the troops in Europe. When they got there they found letters piled to the rafters, some of them two years old, many with just a first name, or a nickname of the soldier they were intended for. Adams organized the effort and the 6888th CPDB women, all African-Americans, worked 24/7 getting things straightened out. Adams was told she had six months to get the job done, she and her WAACs got it done in three months.
At the end of the war her WAACs were invited to march in victory parades in Le Havre and Rouen, France. They were sent to Paris after that to help fix the civilian mail system. Adams ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel, the highest ranking black woman in the military at the time. She left the Army after returning home and went back into teaching.
Charity Edna Adams could not help the times she was born into, but she could make decisions about how she would respond to those conditions of racism and ignorance. She chose not to be intimidated. She chose to do something with the gifts she had been given. She chose to do what she could to destroy the stereotypes that whites held onto during those times. She was a pioneer in difficult times. When African-Americans came home after WWII, they came home to the same racism and segregation, but what they did and with such great skill and determination and pride, would become the fertile ground out of which the later Civil Rights movement would grow.
The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the incredible, dedicated service to the nation that Americans like Charity Edna Adams and so many tens of thousands of other African-Americans gave with both courage and humility even while they suffered the indignities of the undisguised racism of those days. This is a proud history for them and for the rest of the nation.
The Veterans Site honors the dedication and the incredible dignity of Charity Edna Adams in giving so much of her time and talent, both in war and in peace at home. The nation is the better for the courage and dedication to achievement and personal dignity that people like Charity Edna Adams modeled for all of us.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.