Faces of Black Excellence

Major-General Marcelite J. Harris, the first black woman to lead a battalion of men at the U.S. Air Force

Prior to her retirement from the U.S. Air Force, Major-General Marcelite J. Harris occupied the highest rank as a woman and as a person of color; it was no ordinary achievement. Reflecting on her journey to the Black Collegian in 1989, she found this feat surprising, especially when she accidentally stumbled into her profession. All she initially dreamt of as a teenage girl in college was to become an actress, but the challenges she later encountered made it a pipedream.

When she shared her dream with her father, he did not discourage her but gave her one condition to fulfill; he would only support her to move to New York and pursue this dream if she secured an acting gig. After several failed attempts, coupled with paltry paychecks after college, she saw the military as her last option.

Perhaps, fate had its own plans for Major-General Marcelite; none of her family members had a military history, and her only brief experience with what military life could be was during a USO tour to Germany and France, where she saw officers from a stretch. Born in Texas to Cecil O’Neil Jordan, a former postal supervisor, and Marcelite Terrel Jordan, a high school librarian, she was trained to attain the best in life irrespective of the barriers set before her. This helped her to maintain a tenacious position in life, no matter the obstacles.

When she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama in 1964, she quickly applied to the Air Force’s Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.  Her diligence and exceptional skills got her up the ranks in no time, making her the first female aircraft maintenance officer and one of the first two female officers commanding at the Air Force Academy, NBC news reported. She broke barriers and led the trail for many women by becoming the first female Air Force officer in a space largely dominated by men.

Despite this feat, Major-General Marcelite yearned for more. She proceeded to apply for admission to the Aircraft maintenance officer’s school. Though her initial application to the school was rejected, she persevered and later gained admission, and proudly graduated in 1971. Three years later, she was promoted to the rank of maintenance supervisor and was assigned to tougher roles in Vietnam. She was the first black woman in the U.S. Air Force to become a brigadier general and later became the first woman to command a predominantly male battalion.

In 1994, she was appointed as the Director of Technical Training at Headquarters Air Education and Training COman, Randolph Air Force base in Texas. There, she held a bigger job of being responsible for a worldwide workforce of 125,000 technicians and managers, and handled a budget of $20 billion. A year later, she rose to the rank of major general, the highest rank a woman has attained in the U.S. Air Force, and the first black woman in the entire Department of Defense. Before she retired in 1997, she was instrumental in the establishment of a permanent office for the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces (CWINF).

Stephen Nartey

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