Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW) continually strived to be included in organizations and activities that discussed important national topics. Mrs. Bethune contended, "Wherever women are working for good citizenship, social and economic welfare, community health, nutrition, child welfare, civil liberties, civilian defense and other projects for the advancement of the people—there also we must be….". Not surprisingly, once women were finally admitted to join the armed forces, African American women were excluded from a conference of the Women's Interest Section in the War Department in 1941. Mrs. Bethune vehemently protested the exclusion, writing in a letter to the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson:
“We are anxious for you to know that we want to be and insist upon being considered a part of our American democracy, not something apart from it. We know from experience that our interests are too often neglected, ignored or scuttled unless we have effective representation in the formative stages of these projects and proposals…. We are incensed!”
Stimson reconsidered and invited NCNW to become a member of the Women's Interest Section. This important victory helped NCNW become the nationally recognized representative of African American women as the country entered World War II and Mrs. Bethune was named an Honorary General of the Women’s Army for National Defense (WAND).
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was an African American battalion of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Congress established the WAC on July 1, 1943 from what was previously the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. (WAAC). The women trained four to six weeks in basic training, and then an additional four to twelve weeks of specialist training. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Bethune successfully pushed for the admittance of Black women into the WAC. Mail written to the troops would be sent overseas to Europe and processed by a postal battalion, but by 1945 multiple warehouses in Birmingham, England contained mail for soldiers that had not been distributed. The backlog would take six months to process. At the time, there were about 7 million American soldiers and government workers in Europe. Service members were frustrated about not receiving their letters.
The challenge was to get the mail out in a timely manner. There were postal personnel stationed in Birmingham, but not enough to alleviate the problem. Various African American organizations demanded that Black women in the WAC get the same opportunity to serve overseas. In 1944 the War Department gave in to their demands, and the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was created.
Major Charity Adams (the highest ranking African American officer) was selected to serve as the battalion leader, and on February 3, 1945, they sailed for Britain. They were met with warehouses full of packages and letters. The buildings lacked sufficient lighting and they were inadequately heated. The windows were covered to prevent them from becoming a target during nighttime raids. The unit was broken into three eight-hour shifts, and they worked seven days a week. Through the challenges they organized the mail by creating information cards with serial numbers for proper identification. They identified mail that was not correctly addressed and used clues to see who it was intended for.
Through heavy work demands, they had to adjust to increased attention. The locals came to watch them at work. They made friends and were welcomed into public spaces. The women stayed in Old King Edward School, and the officers were spread among two houses. Living and eating facilities were segregated by race and gender. Black male soldiers were allowed into a local club for enlisted soldiers, but the Black women soldiers were not. Major Adams led a boycott of the alternative segregated facilities that were offered to the women. They decided to run their own food hall, hair salon, and refreshment bar. The women were subjected to slander spread about by male soldiers who resented that Black women were allowed in the Army.
The 6888th Battalion did not allow those distractions to affect their work. With their system in place, they were able process about 65,000 pieces of mail per shift and cleared the backlog in three months. Their motto was “No mail, low morale.” They focused on getting mail to soldiers and raising their morale. With the inventory in Birmingham cleared, the 6888th Battalion sailed to France after V-E Day. They traveled to Rouen, where they participated in a victory parade. Their unit was stationed in the old French Barracks. Their arrival prompted the attention of many service members, and they had to increase security efforts around their compound.
After clearing the mail backlog in Rouen, the 6888th moved to Paris in October 1945, and they were able to enjoy a “better taste” of living. In February 1946, the unit was sent back to the United States where they received no welcoming ceremony. Excluding a small number of Black women, the 6888th Battalion was the only all-Black Women’s unit to serve overseas. In 1981, a few of the women returned to England to be honored by the city’s mayor. In 1989, Major Adams released a memoir “One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC” chronicling her life experiences. In 1996, the Smithsonian Institution National Postal Museum honored Major Adams as the commander of the 6888th Battalion. The 6888th veterans received certificates and letters of appreciation signed by the Army Chief of Staff.
On February 28, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 422-0 to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The Senate passed a similar measure in 2021, honoring the hard work of the first and only all Black Women’s Army Corp unit.
Last updated: March 10, 2022