FORT LEE, Va. — In the vintage black and white photo, she is shown walking through the ranks, inspecting and addressing Soldiers attired in dress uniforms and standing at the position of attention.
Captured in mid-step, the officer looms over her charges, her torso erect, head craned slightly forward and eyes peering and probing for discrepancies.
The image itself is unremarkable, as inspections are a part of military routine. When context is added, however — who the subjects are, where they stood in place and time, and what they represented — the depiction becomes emblematic; a powerful expression of hope and aspiration still resonating today.
Even more compelling is the leader whose commanding posture is not only the picture’s focal point but whose very presence at that time as an officer in command of troops was the antithesis of accepted norms concerning race and gender.
The officer in the photograph is Maj. Charity E. Adams, performing military duties on one hand but literally hoisting much heavier burdens on another. Her troops are members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, a Women’s Army Corps unit that became the only predominately Black women’s battalion stationed in the European Theater of Operations during World War II.
The “Six Triple Eight,” as it was called, was deployed during the war to England and later France, cumulatively processing more than 17 million pieces of mostly backlogged mail for U.S. military personnel. As its commander, Adams was innovative, progressive, determined and not least, protective of her troops. The unit’s success earned her the admiration of many and a promotion near the end of the war. Adams became the highest-ranking Black woman in the Army at 27 years of age with little more than three years of service.
Tracy Bradford, curator of the Army Women’s Museum, said Adams stands out in the annals of military history because she volunteered for service; was the first Black woman to graduate her officer candidate school class at Fort Des Moines, Iowa; fought for civil rights in uniform; and led Black WACs to high levels of performance amid policies of institutional segregation.
“Charity Adams’ service was inspirational in several ways,” she said. “She was a courageous leader who refused to be restricted by gender and racial stereotypes of the time, an innovative thinker who developed an efficient and effective mail sorting system that enabled a mountain of backlogged mail to be delivered to Soldiers in Europe, and she was a trailblazer whose legacy opened the door for generations of Army women to follow.”
Born in Kittrell, N.C., and raised in Columbia, S.C., Adams was the oldest of four children belonging to Eugene and Charity Adams, minister and schoolteacher, respectively. She tested as a gifted child, moved up in grades and became valedictorian of Columbia’s Booker T. Washington High School at age 16. Adams attended Wilberforce University on a scholarship, majoring in math, physics and Latin. She graduated in 1938. While teaching junior high school and taking graduate courses after college, Adams was urged to join an Army supporting a nation at war.
Retired Army Col. Edna W. Cummings supported successful efforts to memorialize Adams and the 6888th CPD Bn. She noted how the iconic officer was equally as ambitious as she was smart.
“She just had something inside of her saying, ‘I’m going to do all I can,’” Cummings said. “It was in her DNA. She had the ability.”
Her innate fortitude is arguably what compelled her to upend a promising career as an educator and trade relative safety for the uncertainty of military service. Why else aside from strength of character would a Black woman consider joining an Army known for its well-cultivated, predominantly male culture and well-documented racial discrimination?
Danna Oronoz, an AWM volunteer archivist and researcher, said Adams’ desire to explore the world outside of her own was greater than the circumstances connected to her skin color.
“In her 1990 oral history interview, Adams expressed a desire to do something different with her life,” said Oronoz. “In her autobiography, ‘One Woman's Army,’ she wrote ‘although it (her civilian career) was pleasant, it was not challenging.’”
Adams was one of more than 6,000 Black women who joined the Army during the war. She was one of 440 women accepted into the first Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps) OCS class in 1942, 39 of whom were Black, according to records in the National Archives. She graduated as a third lieutenant (a WAAC rank) on Aug. 29, 1942, and was one of two kept on as cadre members.
Adams’ first job at Fort Des Moines was commander, 3d Company, 3d Training Regiment. She also was a station control officer and staff training officer, a position similar to a drill sergeant or tactical officer.
Stanley A. Earley III — the son born to Adams (later known as Adams-Earley) and her husband, Stanley Earley Jr., after her Army service — said his mother’s thoughts relating to racial discrimination were spoken loudest through her actions and the challenges she accepted.
“There’s a line in the musical ‘Oklahoma’ where the character says, ‘I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good,’” Earley III said. “That was her view … that given the same training and opportunity as anyone else, she could do as well or better than anyone else.”
As an officer, however, Adams was shielded no more than others from prejudicial attitudes. In her memoir, “One Woman’s Army,” she wrote, “For most of the (U.S.) military personnel we encountered (in England), accepting any Negro officer in the U.S. Army was hard enough, but accepting Negro women officers was a real burden.”
Master Sgt. Elizabeth A. Helm-Frazier, a supporter of various efforts to recognize the Six Triple Eight, said Adams detailed many episodes of discrimination and prejudice in her memoir. One interaction with a young white Soldier stood out for her.
“She’s a captain at the time, in uniform and walking somewhere when a female Soldier walks by without saluting her,” Helm-Frazier said. “She didn’t puff up and make scene; she simply stopped the Soldier and said, ‘Weren’t you taught to salute an officer?’ The young lady replied, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘So, why didn’t you salute me?’ said Adams. The Soldier said, ‘Well, I didn’t think you were an officer because you are Black.’ So, she corrects this young lady; the young lady salutes her, says ‘Yes, ma’am,’ then moves out.”
Adams would need such temperament to deal with challenges associated with becoming commander of the 6888th CPD Bn. She became its leader in December 1944. The unit’s mission was to process letters and packages by the millions in Birmingham, England. It operated 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week in segregated facilities with little heat while white Soldiers stayed in nearby houses, according to the U.S. Army Center for Military History.
During the tour, Adams dealt with doses of discrimination like what she experienced in the South. One involved a general officer who made unrealistic demands to stage an all-members parade during his visit. Doing so would have disrupted mail operations. Adams pushed back, and he threatened to install new leadership. She resisted again, according to her memoir, and he eventually backed down.
In another case, Adams confronted the Red Cross as it worked to establish a segregated hotel for her unit’s Soldiers when afforded rest and relaxation time in London. According to the Center for Military History, the hotel was meant to keep women of the Six Triple Eight from socializing with white troops and civilians. Defiantly, Adams encouraged her Soldiers to become familiar with their surroundings and learn about the people they were supporting, and not to use the Red Cross facility. They abided and used available integrated hotels.
In her memoir, Adams said her refusal to support the Red Cross was a small protest that produced a highly desirable and meaningful result.
“What we had was a large group of adult Negro women who had been victimized, in one way or another, by racial bias,” she wrote. “This was one opportunity to stand together for a common cause.”
After three months in Birmingham, the Six Triple Eight had completed its mission. Adams’ unit had been given six months to finish the job and achieved success where others had failed. The unit went on to complete similar missions in Rouen and Paris, France. When unit members returned home in 1945, however, there was no grand welcome. Adams was promoted to lieutenant colonel, nevertheless, and summoned to the Pentagon for duty. She departed the ranks in 1946.
After the Army, Adams earned a master’s degree in psychology from Ohio State University, worked several jobs in academia, married Stanley Earley Jr. in 1949, raised two children ii Stanley III and Judith — and dedicated her life to civil rights and equal justice causes.
She died in 2002 at the age of 83.
Adams and the Six Triple Eight were honored with a memorial at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2018 and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2022, both more significant than the grand welcome denied to them upon returning home from war decades earlier.
Earley III said he is proud of his mother’s legacy, especially the impact she made in the lives of young women. Contacts from children learning about her in schools serve as a reminder that his mother’s accomplishments were larger than life.
“I’ve gotten calls over the last few years from students – mostly young girls ... one from Hawaii doing a film about my mother’s work and another from Washington state who did an essay that won various awards ... it’s been wonderful how inspiring this has been for so many, particularly young people,” he said.
That includes those wearing uniforms. Helm-Frazier was a young Soldier when she first saw the then-unknown and rare-for-its-time image of a Black commander proudly standing before Black troops.
“I was inspired by that photo of Adams inspecting the troops … I wanted to be in that unit because those women looked like me,” she said.
The women in that image moved Helm-Frazier to make greater contributions in uniform and help promote the Six Triple Eight legacy.
Today, women who look like her — and those of every other shade — can pursue opportunities far beyond those available to Adams, whose example helped erase racial and gender stereotypes, and whose work over an abbreviated career remains a powerful expression of hope and aspiration.