At a period when racism and segregation were rooted in the U.S., it was surprising how a group of fourteen young Black women became part of the U.S. Navy; when even Black men were limited in the service and only recruited as menial workers – messmen, stewards, and coal room workers.
These fourteen women, known today as the Golden Fourteen, worked as yeomen and did administrative and clerical work, managing military records on the locations of various sailors and their duty posts. The Golden Fourteen ordinarily couldn’t have been allowed into the Navy because the Secretary of the Navy at that time, Josephus Daniels, was a known White Supremacist linked with the Wilmington Massacre, where a white mob murdered Black residents.
But a legal technicality in the service made it possible for Black women to join the Navy. President Woodrow Wilson approved the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 in a bid to recruit more persons to solve the shortage of clerical servicemen. The Act called for the acceptance of persons who were capable of offering special services for coastal defense. The fourteen Black women were among the 11,000 women who responded to the call and joined the Navy as yeomanettes.
Unfortunately, not much is known about the Golden Fourteen, who made history during World War I as the first Black women to serve in the U.S. Navy. There are few archival records about the Golden Fourteen. The only extant information on their pioneering service is in the book titled “The History of the World War for Human Rights,” written by Kelly Miller, a prominent Black sociologist, educator, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University as at the time of the publication of the book (1919).
The story of the women began to emerge recently through the effort of Jerri Bell, a former naval officer, historian, and researcher with the Veteran’s Writing Project. Bell wrote a sentence about the Golden Fourteen in the book “It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan”. It is a book about the contribution of women in every American war, co-written by Tracy Crow – a former marine.
“It made me kind of mad. Here are these women, and they were the first. But I think there was also a general attitude at the time, that the accomplishments of women were not a big deal. Women were not going to brag,” Bell said.
Bell began working assiduously to unearth more information about the contributions of the Golden Fourteen in the Navy. She knew that during World War I, the fourteen Black women worked in the muster roll unit of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C, under Officer John T. Risher.
Brief stories of two of the fourteen women (Ruth Ann Welborn and Sarah Davis Taylor) have been identified so far. The story of Welborn came to the limelight many years after her death, when a 10-year-old Tracy L. Brown looked through her family photo album and noticed a light-skinned woman who can be mistaken as a White woman. Curious to know more about the light-skinned woman, Brown asked her grandmother, who informed her that the light-skinned woman is hBrown’s great-grandmother – Ruth Ann Welborn.
Brown grew up with a passion to know more about her great-grandmother and the other members of the Golden Fourteen. Brown, who became a practicing attorney, did more research to publish more information about the Golden Fourteen. Her father, Ronald H. Brown, served as the Secretary of Commerce under the administration of President Bill Clinton. In the course of her research, Brown interviewed friends, family, and even President Clinton.
It emerged that Ruth Welborn was the daughter of Walter Welborn, the son of a white merchant and an enslaved woman in Clinton, Mississippi. Walter Welborn escaped slavery and met Elexine Beckley, who came from an affluent Black family. They gave birth to Ruth Welborn, who graduated from Dunbar High School before joining the Naval Reserve and becoming one of the Golden Fourteen.
Courtland Milloy, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote about Sara Davis Taylor, a member of the Golden Fourteen who initially wanted to join the Navy before 1917 but was rejected alongside other Black women. After the 1916 law of President Wilson, Taylor and her fellow Black women realized their dream.
A naval veteran and historian, Richard Miller, wrote in his article “The Golden Fourteen, Plus”, that “it is believed that all of the Black Navy women from the First World War have now passed away. Regrettably, the ‘golden’ place they deserved as pioneers in the annals of Afro-American as well as naval and women’s history was never accorded them during their lifetimes; except perhaps within their immediate family circles.”
In “The Golden Fourteen, Plus”, Miller listed the names of the Golden Fourteen,
- Armelda H. Green of Mississippi (the sister-in-law of Officer John. T. Risher)
- Pocahontas A. Jackson of Mississippi
- Catherine E. Finch of Mississippi
- Fannie A. Foote of Texas
- Ruth A. Wellborn of Washington, D.C
- Olga F. Jones of Washington, D.C
- Sarah Davis Taylor of Maryland
- Sarah E. Howard of Mississippi
- Marie E. Mitchell of Washington, D.C
- Anna G. Smallwood of Washington, D.C
- Maud C. Williams of Texas
- Carroll E. Washington of Mississippi
- Joseph [sic] B. Washington of Mississippi
- Inez B. McIntosh of Mississippi