Setting the course for future generations: CSM Mildred C. Kelly

By Maya GreenFebruary 1, 2024

Man in uniform holding an award poses with a woman in uniform.
Command Sgt. Maj. Mildred C. Kelly, the first female African American sergeant major, command sergeant major and the first female command sergeant major of a major Army installation, with Brig. Gen. Alvin D. Ungerleider, commander of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, during her retirement ceremony in 1976. (Photo Credit: Sheila Lewis) VIEW ORIGINAL

Every February, we recognize the monumental contributions Black Americans have made to our country and history. They have served and sacrificed in every conflict in our nation’s history with more than 248 years of honorable service. African American Soldiers have defended America since the Revolutionary War, spurring a legacy of courage, professionalism, and service.

Command Sgt. Maj. Mildred C. Kelly, former CSM of APG, epitomizes those values.

Kelly enlisted in 1947 into an Army segregated by race and gender. Approximately 1 million Black Americans served in the military during World War II; the mistreatment and racism many experienced upon returning home from war influenced President Harry Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.

Born in 1928 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Kelly graduated from Knoxville College with a degree in chemistry. She taught high school after college for a year before enlisting.

As a Soldier, Kelly rose through the ranks and made history twice in senior enlisted positions. At the Pentagon, Kelly became the first Black female sergeant major in the Army. Two years later at APG, Kelly was appointed the command sergeant major, making her the first woman to hold the highest enlisted position at a major Army installation with a predominantly male population.

Kelly served in the Army for 26 years before retiring in 1976, but her service did not end there. As a member of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Kelly helped build a museum recognizing women’s achievements in military service. The memorial is at the entrance of the Arlington National Cemetery. It houses memorabilia, artifacts, and photographs documenting the history of women serving in the Armed Forces. Kelly also served on the Maryland Veterans Commission, the Veterans Advisory Board, and the National Association of Black Military Women. She was also a president of Chapter 16 of the Women’s Army Corps Veterans’ Association.

Kelly died in 2003 and was buried with full military honors in the Arlington National Cemetery.