What About the Black Women?
“Whenever Biles pulls on her leotard, it’s as though she’s tightening a cape around her neck. She’s the hero tasked with saving a sullied sport, embodying some trite belief in American dominance — and also carrying a gender and an entire race.
That’s a heavy cape, and it chokes. But it’s one that exceptional Black women, and women of color, are told to wear. Because simply being great isn’t good enough.
They have to be superlative, as well as trailblazers. They have to be avatars of progress and change, and also fulfill a deeper societal responsibility as role models who break glass ceilings while breaking records.” (Buckner, 2021)
Lieutenant General Stayce D. Harris
I wanted to secure an e-mail interview with Lieutenant General Stayce D. Harris for this book. Lt. Gen. Harris is the first African American female to achieve this rank (three-star general) in the Air Force. I reached out to her on LinkedIn, and she responded. I was so excited. I guessed that as a person who had experienced so many “firsts” in her career that she’d probably be writing a book. I didn’t think she would give me too much for my book that could possibly detract from her book. I guessed right. She was writing a book, but she was willing to let me send her some questions.
In the process of obtaining her agreement to be interviewed, she asked me, “Why haven’t you interviewed any black female general officers for your books?” I thought my chances to interview her were dead in the water. In my previous two books, I reference the many black male general officers that I had interviewed. I hadn’t interviewed any black female generals.
As I thought about why I hadn’t, the answer was easy. I didn’t know any. While I was a young officer on active duty, I remember learning about General Marcelite Harris.
“Marcelite J. Harris was born Marcelite Jordan to Cecil O’Neal Jordan and Marcelite Terrill Jordan, in Houston, Texas, on January 16, 1943. She graduated from Spelman College, earning her B.A. in Speech and Drama. She originally wanted to be an actress but when she couldn’t find a job, she signed up for the Air Force. In 1965 she completed Officer Training School, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas and held a variety of assignments in the Air Force.
Harris’s career included many ‘firsts,’ including being the first female aircraft maintenance officer, one of the first two female air officers commanding at the United States Air Force Academy, and the Air Force’s first female Director of Maintenance. She served as a White House social aide during the Carter administration. Her service medals and decorations included the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation, and the Vietnam Service Medal.
Harris retired as a Major General in 1997, the highest-ranking female officer in the Air Force and the Nation’s highest-ranking African-American woman in the Department of Defense.” (Foundation for Women Warriors, n.d.)
I conducted my initial diversity research and interviews for the SECDEF’s Diversity Task Force in 2003. Maj. Gen. Marcelite Harris (no relation to Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris) retired in 1997. I explained to Lt. Gen. Harris that because my focus was pilots, that I didn’t know of any black female pilots who had become general officers.
I also told her that I had been fortunate to meet and work with the other non-pilot four-stars I had interviewed: General Bernard P. Randolph, General Lester L. Lyles, and General Larry O. Spencer. In all fairness, I had also tried to contact Lt. Gen. Harris before I finished my previous book. Lt. Gen. Harris graciously gave me a very helpful quote that I could use in this book, but she also gave me the name and contact information for another black female pilot general officer. More on Brigadier General Dana N. Nelson in a moment.
Lt. Gen. Harris is a 1981 graduate of the University of Southern California. She attended pilot training at Williams Air Force Base, AZ, and became a C-141 pilot at Norton Air Force Base, CA. (U.S. Air Force Biographies, 2019)
Though I didn’t get a full interview from her, I did find some great material on her stellar career.
“Stayce D. Harris is the first African American woman to hold a three-star General rank, first Air Force Reservist to be promoted to the three-star rank other than the chief of the Air Force Reserve Command, and the first African American woman to serve as Inspector General of the Air Force, Office of the Secretary of the Air Force in Washington, D.C.
Harris was born in 1959 in Los Angeles, California to Clyde Bruce Harris, a career airman in the U.S. Air Force, and Alice Mae Tabourn Harris, a banker…
In 1987 Harris received her Master of Aviation Management degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and one year later completed Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, in 1988. Harris served on active duty until 1990 when she began working for United Airlines as a commercial pilot.
In April 1991 Harris joined the Air Force Reserves as a Captain and from there began to climb the ranks. She commanded an airlift squadron and an expeditionary operations group. On April 1, 2003, she was promoted to Colonel and two years later in 2005, she made history becoming the first African American woman to command an Air Refueling Wing. She also served as the Assistant Vice Chief of Staff and Director, Air Staff at the Headquarters U.S. Air Force in Washington, D.C.
In 2009, Harris was promoted to Brigadier General and promoted to Major General in 2013, and Lieutenant General in 2016. In 2017, she was appointed Inspector General of the U.S. Air Force.” (Black Past, 2020)
“This opportunity, for me being on active duty for eight years, then becoming an Air Force reservist for 26 years and now coming back on active duty is something that no one ever imagined, especially me, because this is a brand-new opportunity for the Air Force Reserve. It’s the first time that a reservist has held the rank of three-star lieutenant general other than the chief of the Air Force Reserve. I don’t take that lightly and I’m very honored and incredibly humbled to be able to serve in this role, and I want to do well so that we can pay it forward for others.” (Evans, 2016)
Harris was inspired by her father to go into the military.
“‘I am an Air Force brat, so I was born into the Air Force. I’ve been in the Air Force all my life. But as we traveled around with my father, I knew he was in the Air Force, but I didn’t know exactly what he did. But I was thrilled by the fact that we got to move around to what I thought was a new exotic location every two years,’ Harris said.
She started junior ROTC in high school.
‘I really found out what it is to, No. 1, be a good citizen because that’s what junior ROTC programs are really about. But they also expose you to the Air Force,’ she said. ‘I knew that I had that propensity to serve my nation, to be part of something greater than myself and that’s why I decided to join.’
Harris says that the hardest part of the journey has been not having her parents with her. Her mother, a banker, was also the family disciplinarian, and she says she was a daddy’s girl.
‘I lost my mother in college and then my father was with me until 2002, so he was able to know that I had made colonel in the Air Force.’…
‘What I enjoy so much about the Air Force is that before I entered, because there were delays in my going to pilot training. I actually had nine months right after graduation from college where I was off until I was going to go on active duty, and so I was able to work for Hughes Aircraft. I was hired as an engineer for Hughes Aircraft, and even though the salary that I was being paid then was more than I would ever make as a second lieutenant, when I looked around Hughes Aircraft and I thought in my mind, ‘I don’t think I could ever be CEO of Hughes Aircraft.’ Just the climate and the culture didn’t seem possible.’” (Evans, 2016)
In Lt. Gen. Harris’s comments about a possible career at Hughes Aircraft, we see the thought process for many talented minorities that many organizations don’t understand. She made a calculation, an assessment of her chances for success based on the company’s culture and demographic. In other words, “Can I see myself fitting in here? Could I achieve great success here?”
Lt. Gen. Harris’s answers to those questions appear to have been no, as she concluded that she didn’t see how Hughes would “ever” be a career fit for her. Achieving success on a level commensurate with the evaluation of her own abilities “didn’t seem possible” at Hughes at that time.
So many companies are looking at talent, wondering how they will fit, without realizing that these highly talented minorities are simultaneously doing the same thing. Today’s highly talented minorities have many options, and they know it. A decision not to create a more welcoming culture and greater diversity amongst senior leadership is simultaneously a decision not to be competitive for attracting/retaining this talent.
I watched a segment on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” hosted by Mika Brzezinski in which they talked about creating fairness, equity, and opportunities for women and, in particular, minority women. When the question was posed to the guest experts on what women/minority women controlled to make things better for themselves, the answer given was that they should speak up for themselves and ask the organization for what they want and need.
“Mika: There’s a focus on…fairness, dignity and respect. I will ask you in a minute, Tina, what would incentivize companies to do that? It would ultimately give them value back. But let me jump to Kat. These are great ideas and equitable workplaces is what all of us on this screen right now have been fighting for for years. For the woman employee and especially the minority employee, who I think struggles even more, what’s the part of the equation that she can control to make things better for herself?
Kat: One is speaking up within her organization for the things that she wants and needs. Some companies have better structures and cultures for this than others but simply saying what a woman wants and needs are part of it.” (MSNBC Morning Joe, 2021)
When I evaluate these comments from the experts that spoke on this segment, I don’t think that as an organization, the Air Force falls into the category of “some companies have better structures and cultures for this.”
As a military organization, I don’t think the Air Force culture has made a huge jump, aside from maternity leave, into exploring or creating avenues to collect inputs from women and minorities. Specifically, it has not created processes to regularly collect feedback on what types of changes might make its culture more conducive to the success of its women and minority Airmen.
In my opinion, the military, though it has made progress, is still a “one-size-fits-all” organization that doesn’t tailor itself to fit the individual. You have to fit into long-established notions of what a Sailor, Soldier, Airman, Guardian, or Marine is. In many cases, these notions have been greatly influenced by what majority culture says a Sailor, Soldier, Airman, Guardian, or Marine is.
I was in the Air Force for 24 years, and I spent 15 of those years working in what would be the civilian equivalent of Human Resources. I can think of no structural avenues where women and minorities could provide input to leadership regarding things that would make the culture better.
When I was in the Air Force, we had a “suggestion program” to improve processes, a Wing Commander’s hotline, and various type complaint systems to report fraud, abuse, discrimination, etc., but nothing to address softer issues like fitting into the culture, feeling included-what the Air Force and industry today call “inclusion.”
The closest thing black officers had was the Air Force Cadet Officer Mentor Action Group (AFCOMAP). At its inception in 1989, the focus was the mentoring of black cadets at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). (AFCOMA, n.d.)
It later became a de facto affinity group for black officers to network, find mentors, and have an avenue to discuss the difficulties of navigating majority culture. The group had a one-star general officer who volunteered time as a liaison between AFCOMAP Chapters and the Air Force Chief of Staff or his designee. Unfortunately, General Ronald Fogelman diminished the effectiveness of the affinity aspects of this group by saying it could no longer be a group exclusively focused on black officers and cadets.
As a result, a minority female officer in the Air Force today may have only one real option when posed with Mika Brzezinski’s question of “what’s the part of the equation that she can control to make things better for herself?” She may only be able to control whether she stays or goes. She may have to leave the organization to stay true to her vision of what she thinks she is capable of vs. the opportunities the organization is offering or appears to be offering. That is what Lt. Gen. Harris did when she left Hughes.
Mika Brzezinski said that as it pertains to creating equity, fairness, and greater diversity at the higher levels, companies would be incentivized to do this because “It would ultimately give them value back.” In two previous books, now three, I have said that the Air Force still does not believe that on some level, corporately.
I still do not believe that the Corporate Air Force, the sum total of all its military, civilian, and politically appointed decision-makers, and its retired influencers believe that having a black three or four-star pilot will make them measurably better in combat. And that line of thinking certainly also holds, perhaps even more so for black female three and four-star pilots/officers.
I do not believe that the Air Force has reached the level of pursuing diversity at its senior levels as a “strategic imperative” to use its own terms. Yes, the Air Force produces volumes of pieces of paper and an immeasurable number of pronouncements and proclamations through its public affairs and social media outlets that say diversity will “make us better in the fight.” But what concrete things can it point to that have been implemented that will make the young Stayce Harrises of the world want to choose a career on active duty? In the pilot arena, I can think of none.
When I was at Air Combat Command headquarters, I saw the Commander, General Richard Hawley, lead the Air Force in moving heaven and earth to get the F-22. When Congress said no to the costs, they cut personnel and did what was needed to make the F-22 a reality. What about the fighter pilot crisis? I watched General Goldfein turn over every stone in response to the fighter pilot crisis.
“The Air Force’s pilot shortage crisis offers ‘an opportunity for bold moves’ to build the service’s diversity while correcting the growing deficit in aviators, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Wednesday at the conclusion of a daylong summit on the problem. Those moves might include grouping minority pilot trainees together at flight school in order to have a built-in support system…” (Tirpak, 2018)…
…In 2018 flight officers/warrant officers are being considered once again as an answer to the pilot shortage. It raises the question of why flight officers/warrant officers weren’t previously considered as a remedy to the long-standing shortage of minority pilots. That question almost answers itself. The Air Force’s pilot shortage wasn’t a crisis worthy of crisis-level responses until there weren’t enough nonminority pilots to put in cockpits.
The Air Force has had a shortage of minority pilots since the Creech era, post-Vietnam targeted drawdown…
The Air Force’s crisis response considerations in 2018 again reinforce the fact that the nonminority pilot shortage is viewed as a crisis, yet the shortage of minority pilots historically has not been.
That whole discussion leads to the most controversial questions in this book. Does the Air Force really want an influx of black pilots? Is it ready for this kind of cultural shift?” (Thompson, The Air Force's Black Pilot Training Experience, 2018)
In “Black Pilot,” I asked if the Air Force was ready, culturally, and otherwise, for an influx of black pilots. I could extend that question even further and ask if it is ready for an influx of black women pilots? And ultimately black women senior leaders?
For talented minorities, diversity in the senior leadership team, men and women, who “look like me,” serve as success signposts. An organization with diverse leaders shows that the path has already been paved; someone else has already proved that it is possible. I believe that’s what Lt. Gen. Harris was getting at as she assessed Hughes Aircraft.
What success signposts would a dynamic, talented, active-duty Air Force black female pilot have? What would incentivize her to stay in the Air Force? Does the Air Force of 2021 look better than Hughes Aircraft did to a young Stayce Harris?
I don’t know what Lt. Harris saw in the Air Force to decide to stay long enough to become Lt. Gen. Harris. But thank goodness she did as she became a signpost for many black women and men in the Air Force.
Lt. Gen. Harris spent most of her career obtaining “firsts” as a reservist. I have said that I will address Brig. Gen. Nelson later, but she is also a reservist. I will also address black fighter pilot females later, but the highest-ranking one of the two in the Air Force is a Lt. Col. also in the Air Force Reserves.
For someone like General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., whose father was the Army’s first black general, or Lt. Gen. Daniel James, whose father was General Daniel “Chappie” James, the Air Force’s first black four-star, there was a role model, right at home that could provide encouragement by showing him that it could be done.
These in-home mentors could also share advice and experience on how it could be done. For those talented minorities without a close mentoring connection, the challenges of how to succeed in a culture and a landscape where no proven path can be clearly seen may be a more daunting challenge.
For many of these individuals, it may be easier to walk down a path of previously demonstrated success than attempt to be a trailblazer, someone who can break down barriers. Lt. Gen. Harris made her assessment of Hughes Aircraft in six months. As I think of minority officers, specifically minority pilots, the Air Force has until the end of their initial commitment to demonstrate to them that they can be successful based on their own merit and won’t fall prey to roadblocks, obstacles, and hindrances, subjective or objective, cultural or organizational.
In keeping with the themes of all my books on the Air Force, I have put special emphasis on the fact that Lt. Gen. Harris is a pilot. The Air Force is unapologetically a flying force. Its business is the business of flying. As long as the ocean is blue and aircraft are still manned, the Air Force’s most senior leaders will continue to be pilots. The only true measure of successful senior leadership diversity in the Air Force is the diversity of its pilot ranks, more specifically its general officer pilots.
Even as a pilot, Lt. Gen. Harris had to come to her three-star rank through what I call in “Black Ceiling,” a “back door,” referring to the paths that Colin Powell, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., and Chappie James had to take to advance in rank:
“If Colin Powell had been white, would anyone have blinked an eye in hindsight as to his ‘preferential’ selection to brigadier general? No one questions the meteoric rise in rank of MacArthur, Eisenhower, or General George Marshall. We look back at what they did, and history judges their performance in their roles, in their specific cases, as five-star generals. Each of them, as I have already shown, benefitted from a helping hand from a general officer parent or a general officer mentor…
…Why do we need to know the paths that Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and Daniel ‘Chappie’ James took to make general?
The reason the path is significant is to highlight the fact that the black generals mentioned, had to have an unusual door opened or created to promote them to a level where they could demonstrate their potential to its fullest measure, which was four stars in the cases of these three generals. What is wrong with the system that it can’t see their leadership potential?
Part of the answer goes back to the first quote from the article ‘less qualified, under otherwise prevailing standards.’ In the military, our prevailing standards feature job history, scope of responsibility/titles, and level of endorsements. As previously mentioned, non-minorities, especially under the Creech system, were provided top cover, more rapid and varied assignments via targeted development and higher-level endorsements than their minority peers.
To the degree that this type of disparity has continued beyond the Creech era, then selecting a person from the non-developed minority group will always look like reverse discrimination and affirmative action. Unfortunately, this is the case even in retrospect when history shows that many minority officers who have been promoted through an unusual or new door performed exceptionally well at the level that to which they were promoted.” (Thompson, The Air Force's Black Ceiling, 2016)
In her comments about moving out of the Air Force Reserves into an active-duty three-star position, Lt. Gen. Harris said, “this is a brand-new opportunity for the Air Force Reserve. It’s the first time that a reservist has held the rank of three-star lieutenant general other than the chief of the Air Force Reserve.” (Evans, 2016)
It’s as if a door that previously did not exist had not only been created but opened. In 2003, I interviewed Lt. Gen. Daniel James III when he was the Director of the Air National Guard. He told me that he asked the Air Force to allow him to come onto active duty when he was a one-star, I believe, and was told that it was not possible.
In my previous books, I more narrowly focused on diversity in the Air Force’s fighter pilot ranks because the overwhelming majority of Air Force senior officers are and have been fighter pilots. If I had kept that focus, neither Lt. Gen. Harris nor Brig. Gen. Nelson’s stories would be in this book.
Brigadier General Dana N. Nelson
Brig. Gen. Nelson is the first black female USAFA graduate to earn the rank of general officer. She is a Reservist and a pilot, which makes her the highest-ranking black female pilot on active duty or in the Reserves. Brig. Gen. Nelson graduated from USAFA in 1990.
While I applaud Brig. Gen. Nelson’s accomplishments, her “first,” is a ringing indictment of the Air Force’s inability to retain and promote its talent. When I first heard about her, I could not believe that the Air Force did produce a black female general officer from the Air Force Academy until the class of 1990.
“First Officer Nelson was the first African American female pilot hired by Delta Air Lines in January 2001. She was initially based in Orlando, flying the Boeing 737-200…for Delta Express. In September 2001 she transferred to Atlanta to fly the Boeing 757. She is currently flying the Boeing 757/767 based in New York.” (Delta Flight Museum, 2018)
In previous books, I have railed on the argument that we need to recruit more talented minorities if we are to create true diversity among the Air Force’s senior leaders. Stop it. Stop the madness. The Air Force needs to take better care of the talent that it already has. What organization could point to a low success rate of developing minorities from within and get away with blaming it on the national talent pool, year after year, decade after decade?
The first women graduated from USAFA in 1980. Since then:
Diversity, equity, and inclusion can’t be measured in slogans, campaigns, and speeches. It must be measured in faces and names. Those are the only valid results. Those are the measures of success used for non-African Americans. Are we saying that in the history of black women at the Air Force Academy that there has not been one that thought the Air Force was worthy of an active-duty career and had the talent to make it to general officer?
I did not ask Brig. Gen. Nelson why she became a Reservist. I know that she loves her Reserve job, the influence it provides her, and the impact she makes. I also know that she enjoys her job as an airline pilot. It’s just hard to believe that out of all the black females that had the metal to graduate from the Academy; she is the only one that made it to this rank.
I wrote in “Black Ceiling” how in 2003, as part of the SECDEF Diversity Task Force, I met with the Vice President of Global Logistics for McDonald’s at their world headquarters in Chicago. Nearly 20 years ago, he told me of the measures that McDonald’s put in place to ensure that minority managers were successful in their organization. They realized that their African American managers needed something different to thrive.
It wasn’t a lowering of standards. McDonald’s was simply acknowledging that something within its own culture was preventing their minority managers from succeeding. They turned to their affinity group for advice. Here’s a quote from an article that captures what I am trying to convey:
“‘When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.’ – Alexander Den Heijer. Our surrounding environment influences our actions to a high degree. One of the most difficult things to do is to get people to change the way they do things. Changing behaviour is a choice, and our unconscious and conscious mind battle each other to halt any changes. Your brain is wired to do exactly what it has done in the past. This raises one of the biggest challenges with behaviour change – and why getting people to do things differently is so hard.” (InstinctIf Partners, 2016)
In my opinion, the Air Force is still blaming the flower. In other words, if the flower didn’t survive, it didn’t have what it took to thrive in a culture that has been proven to make the Air Force great. In this case, it would appear that black female Academy graduates and black female pilots are acceptable casualties in the Air Force’s efforts to maintain its existing culture.
The 2003 Task Force also looked at other companies that were known as diversity leaders, such as XEROX, American Express, and Delta Airlines. Some of these companies assigned corporate angels to watch out for top minority talent. Until the Air Force takes steps similar to what these industry leaders were doing nearly 20 years ago, I will never believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion are strategic imperatives.
Brig. Gen. Nelson’s father was enlisted. She says she didn’t grow up experiencing USAF culture. However, her father encouraged her to take flying lessons. She said it was to keep her focus off young male suitors. She earned her pilot’s license before entering USAFA. She said that if she was going to the Air Force Academy, she felt she should have her pilot’s license before she went in. (Nelson, 2021)
In my previous two books, I have pointed out the importance of prior flight experience to successfully becoming a pilot. I believe flying experience gave Brig. Gen. Nelson an advantage in completing pilot training. Her experience is like many others who had flight training before commissioning - she was successful in SUPT. It is precisely why the Air Force needs to continue to invest in programs that expose minority students to aviation in junior and senior high school. The result will be more Dana Nelsons.
I wonder if Brig. Gen Nelson’s father had never served in the Air Force; would he have recommended that she get her pilot’s license or followed through with the sizeable investment? Brig. Nelson shared her mother’s excitement about now-retired Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris becoming her wing commander at Andrews.
How many non-Air Force moms would have been so excited to know that the highest-ranking black female pilot in Air Force history was her daughter’s wing commander? How many moms with no military background would have even understood the significance of Lt. Gen. Harris’s assignment as wing commander or the potential benefit to their daughter’s career?
Brig. Gen Nelson says she didn’t grow up experiencing Air Force culture, i.e., living on an Air Force base and seeing her dad go off to work in uniform. However, I believe the influence of Air Force culture was still there, passed down through her parents, and I believe it was one of the ingredients to her success.
"I'm often asked, have you always wanted to be a pilot? My answer is always I didn't know specifically what I wanted to do as a kid, but I knew it had to be full of fun and adventure. I was fortunate to have had a dad to recognize that and dare me to take a flight one day, and a mom patient enough to let me keep my head in the clouds." - F/O Dana Nelson (Delta Flight Museum, 2018)
Brig. Gen. Nelson spoke with enthusiasm about her relationship with Lt. Gen. Harris. She was careful to point out that Lt. Gen. Harris never went out of her way to favor her above others but at the same time began to fly with her often. (Nelson, 2021)
We talked about the fine line that senior black officers have to walk in balancing the responsibility they feel to look back and help those that look like them with the responsibility they have to everyone in the unit, ensuring the best people get rewarded regardless of race or gender.
She shared that though she and Lt. Gen. Harris weren’t really close, that as her boss, Lt. Gen. Harris, was very perceptive and knew what she needed and motivated her accordingly. Brig. Nelson said that Lt. Gen. Harris’s very hands-off, make suggestions approach was the perfect fit for her. (Nelson, 2021)
I got the sense that because Lt. Gen. Harris kept a professional distance and didn’t get “chummy” just because they were both a rare breed (black female pilots) that it caused Brig. Gen. Nelson to respect her more. I believe Brig. Gen. Nelson’s esteem for Lt. Gen. Harris grew because she knew that she had earned respect based on her merit as a pilot and officer.
I have written in other books about the importance of same-race and/or same-sex mentors and role models. I can’t quantitatively measure the impact of Lt. Gen. Harris’s career on Brig. Gen. Nelson’s. I could, however, qualitatively gauge it as great based on the tone of Brig. Gen. Nelson’s voice and the expressive sentiments with which she spoke of Lt. Gen. Harris. Speaking of impact, is it a coincidence that the highest-ranking black female pilot Reservist inspired someone who is now the highest-ranking black female pilot Reservist?
Lt. Gen. Harris tailored her leadership and mentoring approach, helping Brig. Gen. Nelson succeed without compromising her responsibility to serve as the wing commander for all, where all had the same opportunity, regardless of race, and achieve their highest potential. This is an interesting leadership dynamic that is unique to minority and women leaders in Air Force culture, an additional burden that nonminority men don’t have to bear. When a minority or female appears to show favoritism to other minority or female officers, it is viewed as compromising their responsibilities as the commander.
When white males favor those who look like them, it is almost never viewed negatively. I wonder how much pressure Lt. Gen. Harris may have felt wanting to do a little more to help another supremely talented black female flying officer while battling the unspoken notion that to do so was an unspoken no-no in Air Force culture.
In my opinion, it would have been irresponsible for Lt. Gen. Harris not to reach back and ensure that the minority officers under her command had the guidance that they needed to be successful. Again, it's a very fine line, a line unique to the experience of minority officers, female officers, and most definitely to minority female officers.
I talked with Brig. Gen. Nelson about mentoring. She talked about how minority officers and nonminority female officers often stop her in the halls of the Pentagon because they have never seen anyone like her. She talked about how she eagerly has “coffee” with as many female officers as she can to discuss whatever they want to discuss. (Nelson, 2021)
In one interesting exchange, she said she had spoken to a group of minority female officers about how for many of them, doors of opportunity were opened by white males. To me, that made perfect sense. Many of us, as black officers, didn’t have a minority officer, 0-6 or above, in our unit or anywhere else that we could easily access to open doors for us. A white male had to do it, or it wouldn’t have gotten done.
Lieutenant Colonel Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell
“Lieutenant Colonel Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell is the first African American female fighter pilot in the United States Air Force. Kimbrell was born in Lafayette, Indiana, on April 20, 1976. Her parents, Eve Blackman Ng A Qui and Dr. Norman N A Qui, migrated from Guyana and were naturalized citizens by the time Kimbrell was born. In her youth, the family moved to Parker, Colorado, and Kimbrell attended school there. She decided she wanted to become a fighter pilot in the fourth grade and had her first flight lesson at the age of fourteen. She joined the Civil Air Patrol, and worked at air shows, while earning her private pilot’s license.
Kimbrell received her commission after she graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado in 1998, with a Bachelor of Science degree in General Engineering. She later received a Master’s in Business Administration from Touro University in Nevada in August 2005. Kimbrell attended undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin Air Force Base (AFB) in Del Rio, Texas and earned her pilot wings in August 1999. By November, Kimbrell completed Introduction to Fighter Fundamental training at Randolph AFB, Texas. She graduated from F-16 training at Luke AFB, Arizona in August 2000, and became the first African American female Fighter Pilot in the USAF.
Kimbrell’s first operational assignment was with the 13th Fighter Squadron in Misawa, Japan, from August 2001 to July 2003. She served as an F-16 fighter pilot, and was deployed to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, in support of Operation Northern and Southern Watch. In Operation Northern Watch, Kimbrell was the first African American female to fly in a combat mission for the 35th Fighter Wing, and to employ ordnance in combat…” (Nielsen, 2020)
“It wasn’t until she returned to the U.S. that her historic accomplishments began to receive attention.
‘It was me doing what I wanted to do; I didn’t know I was breaking this barrier for five years after I had already done it,’ she says. ‘Then I felt a lot of pressure.’
Realizing she was a role model made her self-conscious. After she matured through that, she realized she wasn’t going to please everyone and instead saw it as a door to expanding horizons for young people who envisioned new possibilities for themselves thanks to her accomplishments.
‘I realized how enormous that voice was for those young kids and then it was inspirational for me to be able to go and share stories and brighten those eyes and open up a door of possibilities to those youth,’ Kimbrell says…
She says women need to hold every possible role in today’s military and female officers should not sell themselves short. They need to have a vision for their military careers and find paths to their desired roles…
‘Personally, I’m going to seek out — probably in the next three to five years — about 100 families that I want to mentor, who want to do great things, but don’t know how to go about it,’ says Kimbrell. ‘I want to take all the success principles … and give them access to the resources to do that.’” (Diverse Education Admin, 2020)
“Lt. Col. Kimbrell separated from active duty and transitioned to the AF Reserves in October 2013. She retired from the Air Force in the spring of 2020 but is ‘still making her mark on future officers at the Air Force Academy. She is teaching physical education and is the director of culture, climate and diversity with the athletic department.’ (Nielsen, 2020)
“Kimbrell has over 2,100 flight hours and has been awarded numerous awards throughout her career, to include five Aerial Achievement Medals, two Air Force Commendations Medals and the National Defense Service Medal. Kimbrell is married to Travis Kimbrell and the couple have two sons, Kade and Jakeb.” (Nielsen, 2020)
Lt. Col. Kimbrell spoke of feeling a “lot of pressure” to be a role model. I would venture to say that it was a pressure that her white male counterparts never had to deal with. It was a pressure that was added on top of the stress of combat, family separation, and being the only one that looked like her, had the same job as her, in every unit she was ever in during her entire career.
What should be the Air Force’s responsibility to nurture and care for people like her? I had a thought about Pandas and other animals that are on the verge of extinction. We take great care to make sure that they are in a conducive environment so that they thrive.
Is it favoritism, reverse discrimination, or lowering the combat standard to ensure that someone this extremely rare is thriving in the Air Force? Shouldn’t it have CSAF visibility? I don’t know Lt. Col. Kimbrell. We’ve never spoken. It just doesn’t sound like the Air Force showered her with support for dealing with this type of unique pressure. I could be off base.
Lt. Col. Kimbrell did not finish her career on active duty. She transitioned to the Reserves before retiring from the Air Force. At the time of this writing, there is one other black female fighter pilot in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Christina Hopper.
Lieutenant Colonel Christina “Thumper” Hopper
“Maj. Christina Hopper’s life embodies three F’s: faith, family and fitness.
She also flies an F-16 Fighting Falcon. She’s a wife, a mother of three and she became the first African-American fighter pilot to face combat in a major war – representing our country in Iraq.
Hopper grew up in the military family. She was born in Norway and lived in Greece for a short period of time before moving back to the United States when she was 4. Coming from a biracial family, she experienced racism from both ends.
‘Overseas it was very interesting because we didn’t experience racism in the same way that you would experience racism in the United States. So overseas it was, for example, the Greeks did not like Americans, so it was racist against the American nationality, and so it was kind of like the Americans and the military families of the naval families, you know, families that we were there with, we were united, and so I didn’t feel so much discriminated against for ethnicity when I was overseas.’…
‘Well, when we moved back to the States, we initially moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And when I was in Pittsburgh, we went to an all-white school and that was the first time that I experienced racism. I remember attending my kindergarten class and the kids were making fun of me because my skin wasn’t the same color and they were calling me names like zebra and oreo because my parents were interracially married so I wasn’t quite black but I wasn’t quite white and so it wasn’t … I kinda didn’t fit in.’
Hopper said programs are needed that target youth, to get them dreaming of becoming military pilots, then matching them with mentors to help guide them. The Black female military pilots who are flying can help by increasing their public outreach, she said.
‘It can at times be lonely to be the only person in your squadron, in your unit, that is different,’ Hopper said. ‘But at the same time, I feel like standing out and being an ‘only one’ has kind of given me a platform from which to reach out and encourage other young girls, and especially young minority girls, and tell them, ‘Hey there are opportunities here that exist for you.’…
‘The more times that they see me, then the more times I think they see the possibility and perhaps that encourages the numbers to increase,’ she said.” (Evans, Meet the first African-American female fighter pilot to fly in war, 2016)
“Hopper said she has spent years focusing on getting young women, and especially young minority women, to see themselves in her and think of flying as a goal within their reach.
‘I think sometimes when you see a woman, or a minority woman in a career field, and she’s maybe the sole one, or maybe part of a minority, there’s a tendency to think ‘Oh, she must be an exception. There must be something exceptional about her,’ Hopper said. ‘And that’s what I’d like to dispel. I want girls to look at me and ‘I can be her.’” (Copp, 2020)
Lieutenant Colonel Theresa Clairborne
“Captain Theresa M. Claiborne attended the University of California at Berkeley for Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). On June 20, 1981, she was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
She attended Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin AFB, TX and graduated on September 16, 1982, Class 82-08 as the first African American female pilot in the USAF.” (Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, 2019)
“Not everyone is cut out to be a trailblazer. It requires just the right mix of guts, determination and, maybe most importantly, a thick skin. Lacking even one of those qualities is enough to stop a would-be pioneer in their tracks, sending them home in defeat. But for United Airlines First Officer Theresa Claiborne, losing was never an option.
‘My mother always told me, 'You have to be twice as good.' That's why I was always so hard on myself,’ Theresa says.
You have to be twice as good. It's a phrase that many African Americans heard as children, foreshadowing the inequality that they were likely to face at some point in their lives. Theresa used that as her motivation to not only flourish over her 26-plus year career at United, but also in becoming the first African American woman pilot in the United States Air Force.
‘I had no idea that I would be a barrier-breaker,’ she says. ‘When I was going through pilot training, a guy who had been in ROTC with me called me up and said, ‘Theresa, you're the first,' and I said, 'The first what?' We researched the records, and sure enough – I had the chance to be the first African American woman to fly in the Air Force.’
Looking back on it today, Theresa is grateful that she wasn't aware of that fact until her training was nearly complete. ‘When I found out, I knew that people would be looking at me and wondering if I could do it. I'm glad that I didn't know until the last couple of months of training; flight school was already the most difficult thing I had ever done without that extra pressure.’
While in college, Theresa entered the University of California-Berkeley's ROTC program, and it was there that she got her first taste of flying, riding along in an Air Force T-37 training jet. ‘That one flight is all it took; it was the best thing ever,’ she recalls with a smile. From that point forward, she knew what she wanted to do, but there was a major hurdle to overcome: At that time, the military only gave out ten pilot slots each year to women who were non-service academy graduates. By the time Theresa took the oath to join the military, those ten spots were filled.
But midway through her first year in ROTC, the Air Force determined that female trainees washed out at the same rate as their male counterparts (roughly a third fail to graduate from training). They increased the allotment to 30 women per year just in time for Theresa to accomplish the necessary prerequisites and be selected for flight training.
For the next 20 years - seven years of active duty and thirteen in the reserves - she flew the KC-135, a massive refueling plane dubbed the ‘stratotanker.’ Theresa flew missions overseas in the early-1990s during Operation Desert Shield and in the mid-90s over the Balkans during the Yugoslavian civil war. And in January 1990 Theresa joined United, at a time when she was one of only a handful of African American pilots working at the airline.
‘In years past, you didn't really see many black pilots anywhere. Being hired by United was a big deal; African American pilots were a small group, and African American women pilots were an even smaller group. Over the years, younger pilots have said to me, 'Thank you so much, Theresa, for paving the way,' and that warms my heart. I always thank them, but then I remind them that it's up to them to continue to clear that path for the young people behind them.’
To be sure, it wasn't always easy. "When I was in the Air Force, my co-pilot and I were planning a mission. Another crew walked in and their Captain went over the details with my co-pilot. When he was finished, my co-pilot looked at him and said, 'That sounds good, but maybe you should talk to the Commander' and he pointed at me. My co-pilot was a white male, and that Captain obviously thought that there was no way that I could be the Commander. We laughed about it, but it was an opportunity to educate that person.’
Over the years, Theresa has seen gradual improvement in that regard. ‘I wasn't hired at this airline just because I was black, and I haven't lasted this long due to that fact, either. Thankfully, at this point, I no longer feel like I have to prove that I deserve to be here. But I also strive to do a good job so that the next person doesn't have to work twice as hard to get where I am.’" (Adams, n.d.)
Lt. Col. Clairborne said, "My mother always told me, 'You have to be twice as good.' That's why I was always so hard on myself.” She said that she was glad that she didn’t find out that she would be the “first” black female pilot in the Air Force until late in her training. She said that it would have placed “extra pressure” on her in training if she had known. Finally, she implied that in the past, she felt like she had to prove she “deserved” to be in her job as a pilot.
What can the Air Force do to minimize these extra stressors for black women in pilot training? The first thing it can do is stop acting as if they don’t exist and are not key detractors to success in pilot training, even above academic background.
The Air Force’s first black female three-star general, the first black female USAFA graduate to make brigadier general, the Air Force’s only black female fighter pilots, and the Air Force’s first black female pilot share something in common. They all spent significant time as members of the Reserve Component of the Air Force. What is it in the Air Force’s culture, nurturing, and mentoring processes that have led the Air Force’s most accomplished black female pilots to choose not to complete a career on active duty?
Hidden Gems/Stars In the ANG
I reached out to Col. Wistaria Joseph, USAFA class of 1993, to see if I could find information on other successful black female Air Force officers. She gave me the names of two brigadier generals in the Air National Guard, Tara McKinnie and Cassandra Howard.
Here is the June 7th, 2021, headline/sub-headline related to Brig. Gen. McKennie’s promotion, “Tara McKennie becomes the first woman general in Alabama Air National Guard ‘You have truly made history being both the first female and first African American General Officer for the Alabama National Guard,’ Gov. Kay Ivey said.” (Moseley, 2021)
According to the article, Brig. Gen. McKennie enlisted in the Air Force in 1989, got a commission in 1989, and, like all of the black females I have previously presented in this chapter, left active duty. She transferred to the Air National Guard in 2002 and later served as the commander of the 187th Medical Group and then as chief of staff of the Alabama Air National Guard. (Moseley, 2021)
Brig. Gen. Cassandra Howard “is the Pentagon's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) - nominated Assistant for Mobilization and Reserve Affairs, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Defense Health Affairs (HA). As the Reserve Component flag officer, she will serve as the HA Policy and Oversight Adviser to the Director of the Defense Health Agency.” (Methodist Health, 2019)
Brig. Gen. Howard, like Lt. Gen. Harris and Brig. Gen. Nelson had a father that served in the Air Force:
“I enlisted at the encouragement of my father, (now retired) who was an active KC-135, Air Refueling Pilot in the 128th Airlift Wing, WI ANG, she says. ‘I joined the 128th Airlift Wing, Wisconsin Air National Guard (WI ANG), in 1987 while in high school, and I enlisted as an entry-level (Airman Basic, E-1), Aerospace Medicine Technician (Flight Medic).’” (Memphis Medical Society, 2018)
Her bio in the Memphis Medical Society Quarterly says that her service in the ANG was varied but primarily in the Medical Service. After ten years as enlisted “Flight Medic” and attaining the rank of Technical Sergeant, she became an officer and described that service as follows:
“I later joined the Medical Corp upon becoming a Commissioned Officer (1996), she says. My responsibilities, as a physician, involved ensuring the continued medical readiness of our Airmen. I then completed training at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine (2003), earning my ‘wings’ as a rated Flight Surgeon.” (Memphis Medical Society, 2018)
It may have seemed that I have taken somewhat of a detour by talking about black females in the Air National Guard (ANG). I assure you that I have not. I am trying to paint a picture of where success seems to lie for black females in the Air Force. In the active-duty Air Force, if we want to find the highest-ranking white men, we would start looking for active-duty pilots, especially fighter pilots. With black females, it would seem that first, we would have to look in the Reserve Component.
This is so fascinating to me. I spent four years as a USAFA cadet and saw several general officers. I spent 24 years between active duty and the Reserves. In my 28 years in a blue uniform, I never saw one black female Air Force general officer. I met Lt. Gen. Harris at a Tuskegee Airmen convention after I retired.
To suddenly find two black female general officers in the ANG intrigued me so much that I began to search the ANG to see if there were other black female generals. I started with Brig. Gen. Howard’s promotion photo. She was pinned on by a black female two-star general.
I reached out to Brig. Gen. Howard on LinkedIn and asked her who the person in the photo was. She responded by saying, “Major General (ret) Jan Young in uniform and Major General (ret) Rita Works in civilian attire. Both are black females from the TN Air National Guard as well and great mentors of mine.” Wow! Two black female two-star generals. (Howard, 2021)
It shouldn’t be surprising that two black female generals mentored and served as role models for a black female who became a general. It’s so fundamental to the African American military experience, yet I don’t think the Air Force has grasped it entirely. Here are the bios on the two now-retired major generals:
Major General Janette Young
Air National Guard Assistant to the Commander, Air Education and Training Command
“Major General Jannette Young serves as the Air National Guard Assistant to the Commander, Air Education Training Command. General Young is responsible for advising and assisting the Commander and staff on formulating, developing, and coordinating policies and programs impacting more than 106,000 Air National Guard members. She ensures mission requirements of the 88 Flying Wings and 88 Support Units are considered in the planning and execution phases of the Air Education Training Command.
General Young received her commission through a direct commission for health professionals in February 1984 in the United States Army Reserves, transferring to the Air National Guard in 1988. She has served as a Primary Care Nurse Practitioner, Health Promotion Coordinator and Chief Nurse Executive of the 164th Airlift Wing in the Medical Squadron in Memphis. Appointed as a State Headquarters staff officer in 2000, she was appointed to the role of Chief of Staff in April 2004 and also served as the Air Deputy Commander, Joint Forces Headquarters, Tennessee National Guard. In June 2005, she served as the Air National Guard Assistant to the Air Force Assistant Surgeon General, Medical Force Development and Nursing Services. General Young assumed her current position in April 2009.” (National Guard Burea Biography, n.d.)
Major General Delilah R. Works
Chief of Staff, Tennessee Air National Guard
“Major General Delilah R. Works is the Chief of Staff, Tennessee Air National Guard, Nashville, Tennessee. General Works is responsible for organizing, training and equipping of approximately 3600 Air National Guardsmen in Tennessee's three flying wings (C-5A, KC-135R, and C-130H) and three mission support units. She serves as principal advisor to the Assistant Adjutant General-Air, Tennessee on matters pertaining to the Tennessee Air National Guard and also serves as the Deputy Joint Chief of Staff, Joint Force Headquarters - Tennessee.
General Works was commissioned in 1980 as a graduate of the Air Force Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Upon leaving active duty in 1986, she joined the 164th Airlift Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard, serving in a variety of assignments including Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and Group Commander, Executive Officer (Wing and Squadron level), and Personnel Officer. In April 2004, she moved to the Tennessee Joint Force Headquarters, where she served as Director of Staff. She assumed her current position in September 2007.” (National Guard Burea Biography, n.d.)
After I found the bios for Major Generals Young and Works, I found a bio for another black female, Brig. Gen. Mary Epps. Generals McKennie, Howard, Young, and Epps all served in medical career fields. Maj. Gen Works started her career as an administrative officer.
Brigadier General Mary A. Epps
“Brigadier General Mary A. Epps is the assistant adjutant general-air who also serves as the commander of the Connecticut Air National Guard. She is responsible for formulating, developing, and coordinating all policies, plans, and programs affecting over 1,100 members of the Connecticut Air National Guard and is tasked with ensuring their ability to respond to peacetime contingencies while maintaining readiness to accomplish their war missions.
General Epps started her military career by enlisting in the Connecticut Air National Guard in June 1976 and received a commission as a first lieutenant in 1977. She was a member of the 103rd Fighter Wing, Connecticut Air National Guard for 23 years, becoming the first African American and the first female to achieve the rank of colonel in the history of the Connecticut Air National Guard. Prior to this position, she was the Air National Guard Advisor to the Commandant of the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI), Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. For the six years immediately prior to her DEOMI assignment General Epps functioned as the 103rd Medical Squadron Commander.” (National Guard Burea Biography, n.d.)
My research of black female generals in the Air National Guard finally led me to the bio of Maj. Gen. Irene Trowell-Harris, the first black female general in the Air National Guard. She, too, had a medical background and became a general two years after Marcelite Harris.
Major General Irene Trowell-Harris
“There have been many firsts in American history but few as noteworthy as the signal achievement of Maj. Gen. Irene Trowell-Harris. In October 1993, this woman who began life on a small cotton farm in Aiken was selected to become the first female African-American general in the 357-year history of the National Guard, the military’s oldest branch. Trowell-Harris knew what she wanted to do from a very young age. As she picked cotton with her 10 brothers and sisters on their parents’ farm in Aiken, she watched planes as they passed overhead and dreamed that someday she would fly for a living. Her mother, however, wanted her to be a nurse. After graduation from high school, she earned a nursing diploma from the Columbia Hospital School of Nursing. Her dream of flying would not die. In April 1963, Trowell-Harris was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the New York Air National Guard. She enrolled in the Aerospace School of Medicine, Flight Nurse Branch, San Antonio, Texas and graduated as a flight nurse in February 1964. Her position required specialized training in the care of military personnel, their families and diplomats during national and international flights. She remained on flying status for 11 years, traveling all over the world. Trowell-Harris advanced quickly in the ranks, earning promotion to flight nurse instructor in 1966, flight nurse examiner and to chief nurse a few years later. ‘During a transport, the nurse is the senior medical person on the plane,’ she explained. ‘Along with the medical team, you decide who goes on the plane and who doesn’t. It is very important to make that judgment properly.’ Her stellar career in the Air National Guard allowed for a perfect combination of her love for airplanes and her commitment to nursing. During her 38 years with the Air Force and Air National Guard, Trowell-Harris has excelled at academics, beginning with nursing school then graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree from Jersey City State College in 1971. She earned a master’s degree in public health from Yale University in 1973 and a doctorate in health education from Columbia University in 1983. In 1986, she was appointed commander of the 105th USAF Clinic in Newburgh, N.Y., making her the first Air National Guard nurse to command a medical clinic. In her military career, she went on to serve as an advisor to the Air Force Nurse Corps and worked in the office of the Air Force surgeon general on medical readiness and nursing services. Gen Trowell-Harris was the Air Force representative to the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces Conference held in Istanbul, Turkey. A recipient of the Air Force Distinguished Service and Legion of Merit awards, Dr. Trowell-Harris was the first African-American female in the history of the National Guard to be promoted to general officer.” (South Carolina African American History, n.d.)
The success that black women have found in medical career fields goes back even further as the first black female general officer was Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown, an army nurse:
Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown
“1979: First black chief of the Army Corps and first black female brigadier general Johnson-Brown was an operating room nurse, who graduated from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing and joined the U.S. Army in 1955. She thought it would be an opportunity that would allow her to explore the world and hone her nursing skills. She had no idea she would become a part of military history. Timing had much to do with Johnson-Brown's success in the military, as she entered the Army shortly after President Harry Truman banned segregation and discrimination in the armed services. Following her retirement, Johnson-Brown enjoyed a distinguished second career in academia. She served as professor of nursing at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and finally at George Mason University in Virginia. At George Mason University, she was instrumental in
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