Marcelite J. Harris was the first black woman to serve as a major general in the U.S. military. Her body has been laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, but her story will never be forgotten.
Harris was the first female aircraft maintenance officer and one of the first two female officers commanding at the Air Force Academy. She served presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, NBC reports, and when she retired from the US Air Force in 1997, she was the highest-ranking female officer in the Air Force and the nation’s highest-ranking black woman in the Department of Defense.
In 1999, Harris was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Spelman, the college she earned her undergraduate degree from run 1964. Harris initially wanted to be an actress, and earned her bachelor’s degree in speech and drama, but even the most concrete plans have a way of evolving.
“Her father told her she could only move to New York if she had a job after graduating college,” daughter Tenecia Harris, 37, told NBC. “But that’s not really how acting works.”
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Harris channeled her passion into planes, instead. She joined the Air Force.
Her superiors were immediately impressed.
“I remember when we found out she was promoted to second star,” Tenecia said. “She looked at my dad and said, ‘We did it: We got the second star.’ It was a family accomplishment.”
In 2010, President Barack Obama gave Harris one last mission for the military when he appointed her to the board of visitors of the Air Force Academy. As a member of the board, her duties were to uphold and champion the moral, disciplinary and academic affairs of the Air Force.
“Separating work and private life can be difficult for women in the 21st century, but my mom mastered it,” Tenecia said. “She never missed a birthday or recital. She traveled a lot, but she was there in all the important moments.”
Harris was 75 years old when she died on Sept. 7, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, in Miami. She will be buried next to her husband, Lt. Col. Maurice Harris, USAF (Ret.).
Learn more about the life and legacy of this amazing woman in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.