This week’s featured Woman of History was a reader suggested choice. Mary Bowser was a civil war spy, missionary and educator. Unfortunately she is also a mystery.
Today’s choice for “Women of History,” is another american woman named Cathay Williams. Ms. Williams was an African-american woman who joined the US Army during the Civil war under the alias of William Cathey. She was the first African-American woman documented to join the military.
Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri in September 1844. Her father was a freed man, but her mother was still a slave, therefore Cathay herself was born into slavery. She worked as a house slave until 1861 when she was 17 years old. However, it was into another form of slavery that she transitioned to. The Union Army, in a time before the emancipation proclamation had decided that slaves that had worked to help the Confederate cause were ‘contraband’, and still considered property. They took the slaves from the plantations and pressed them into service as cooks and other support services. Cathay was added to the 8th Indiana Volunteer Regiment to serve as a cook and seamstress. She would spend the next couple of years traveling the country and seeing various battles across the south.
In 1866, Cathay decided to enter the army full-out, but as a man. At the time women were not allowed to enlist in the military (although some did in the manner that Cathay choose). It wouldn’t be until 1949 that women would officially be allowed to enlist in the US Army. Joining the military as a soldier would allow her to remain independent and earn an income.
She enlisted in the regular Army under the name of William Cathey on November 15, and was assigned to the 38th US Infantry regiment after she passed a medical exam. Sources differ whether this was required a the time or not, but evidently it did not matter. They believed her to be a healthy male. Her only confidants were a cousin and a friend who were in her regiment. The 38th was an all Black unit that had been formed that year and the various units were occasionally known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’.
They were called that because they were often assigned to posts in the Western United States protecting the white settlers from the Native Americans and various criminals taking advantage of them. African-Americans were not allowed to enlist in the regular army until legislation passed in 1866 allowed them. So ‘William Cathey’ was one of the first to formally enlist. The segregation of the military would last until 1948, when Henry S. Truman disbanded the practice and diversified the military.
She managed to continue with the regiment for almost two years without being discovered. She caught smallpox at one point, and the lingering health effects of this illness caused her to be hospitalised several times, all of which were documented in her records. Somehow despite the hospitalizations, she was not discovered till 1868 to be a woman. Once she was discovered, her commanding officer discharged her on October 14, 1868, filing it as a disability discharge. On the discharge papers, Cathay was still referred to as William and the Captain who discharged her claimed that “the origin of his infirmaries is unknown to me.” The Doctor added that her ‘condition dates prior to enlistment.’ They effectively ended her military career without admitting that the Military had managed to not catch on to her biological sex. While her later illness might have been limiting her ability to handle the job, one has to wonder if the discharge ‘condition’ was less being chronically ill and more about being born female.
Despite her discharge, Cathay was not finished with military life. She went to work as a cook once again at Fort Union for a short time. She then moved to Colorado and became a seamstress and might have opened a boarding house (though I found only one source that claimed this). She married, but it ended badly when her husband stole from her and she had him arrested. She continued to struggle with her health through the years.
In 1891, Cathay applied to get a disability pension after being released from the hospital after a year and a half stay.. The application listed her age as 41, which would give her a birth year of 1850, 6 years younger than she claimed to be on her enlistment form. Cathay suffered from diabetes and neuralgia. Due to her diabetes she had suffered amputations and was forced to walk with a cain. She dealt with deafness, which she blamed on contracting smallpox during her time in the military.
In September, a local doctor was sent to examine her by the Pension Bureau. More discrepancies occurred on his form. She was 2 inches shorter (possible due to aging), and 49, which makes her 2 years older than her enlistment birthdate of 1844. It is unclear if the doctor was competent and simply did not examine her fully trying to save time or was incompetent or not current as his report had medical inaccuracies. He looked for signs of Neuralgia in the joints and muscles. Neuralgia is an illness that affects the nervous system and this was known in 1801, long before Cathay claimed to have the problem. It would not have appeared physically in her joints or muscles.
Also despite reporting her amputations (she no longer had toes) he did not think to consider the reasons for the amputations, or that not having them would be a disability. Interestingly, though, the Pension Bureau did not reject the claim because of illegal enlistment (as they could have since women were still not allowed in the military) and instead recognized that Cathay William was William Cathey. They rejected it claiming she was not in fact disabled. This would be the last documented mention of Cathay.
Not much is known about when she died, but it is believed to be shortly after the visit of the military doctor. She was not included in the next census, so her death occurred sometime between 1892 and 1900. It is often listed as 1892 or 1893 as it is assumed that due to her condition and her financial problems due to being ill for so long she most likely died around that time.
She was buried with a wooden tomb marker, which has since deteriorated and has left her final resting spot a mystery in the present day.
Due to varying levels of record keeping, much of Cathay’s life is left to fill in by guessing, using the tidbits that are well documented to help fill out the missing pieces. As time goes by, more research is done in her life and more information is found. She has become the representative of the many women who joined the military and don’t have as documented a service or were found out sooner. It is estimated hundreds of women were in the military disguised as men during the Civil War, as with as the Revolutionary War before that.
She also has the legacy of a woman whose tenacity and determination took her to places that society forbade her due to her gender. She never hid from her past, either.
For this edition of “Women of History”, I’m going to get out of the Medieval period and journey back into the 19th century. Our topic today is Bessie Coleman, a woman who broke barriers and was a pretty good pilot to boot.
Bessie was born on January 26, 1892, so today just so happens to be the 126th anniversary of her birth. She was born in Atlanta, Texas to George and Susan Coleman but raised in Waxahachie, Texas. When she went to school due to her mixed racial heritage (Native American and African-American) she was forced to go to segregated one room school. She excelled in school, completing all eight years offered at the time. When she wasn’t at school, she helped her mother harvest cotton. Both her parents were farm laborers, but Bessie grew closer to her mother after her father left when she was 12 to find more opportunities in Native American Territory.
When she got older she was awarded a scholarship to the Missionary Baptist Church school. She later enrolled in Langston UNiversity (then known as the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University.) but only was able to complete a single term due to not being able to afford it.
When she turned 23 she and a brother moved to Chicago, and it was there that she found her calling. While she worked as a manicurist she would hear stories about flying from returning pilots from WWI. She decided she wanted to earn her pilot’s license and got a second job to save up for it. She hit a large obstacle when she found out that American flight schools would not accept her (due to her race and gender). However she found support in publisher Robert S. Abbott and Banker Jesse Binga and was able to study abroad. She attended classes to learn french so she could attend aviation school in France.
She arrived in France in 1920 to attend flight school and seven months later on June 15, 1921 she earned her international aviation license. She was the first woman of African-American heritage to earn her license as well as the first Native American. She then went further and took advanced piloting lessons, and made visits around europe to different aircraft designers to better learn her craft.
To earn a living, she became a stunt pilot, going by the stage name of “Queen Bess” and was quite a draw at aviation shows. She saved up and opened her own beauty ship in Orlando, Florida to save up money to fund her new dream of having her own aviation school.
She found herself still facing racial issues. At the height of her fame she was offered a role in a feature film, but the scenes she was asked to film contained racial stereotypes she refused to propagate. Her strong stance at not allowing race determine her future helped inspire future pilots and activists.
Sadly, Bessie never lived to see her aviation school open. She was killed in an aviation accident on April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida. She took to the air with her assistant William D. Wills piloting so she could oversee the field for a show. A wench got stuck in the controls, causing the plane to flip over. Bessie was thrown from the cockpit, and fell to her death. Wills crashed nearby was killed by the impact. Matters were further complicated when a distressed friend of the two accidentally tossed a cigarette where some gasoline had landed and the crash site went up in flames.
Even in death she fought against racial inequality. The Florida Times-Union out of Jacksonville, Florida reported the death of Wills, and had Bessie as an afterthought and put the article on a back page despite the fact the crash happened within its limits. The Chicago Defender had it as front page news and equally honored both pilots while recognizing the racism that defined some views of Bessie and the crash. The Defender, known for its positive reporting of African-Americans was actually banned in some places.
In 1929, Lt. William J. Powell established an aviation school named in Bessie’s honor. The Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, California would later host the first all-African-american air show in 1931. Powell continued to be a civil rights activist though his life.
Bessie would also be honored by an annual flyover on the anniversary of her death (since 1931), an US Postage stamp in 1995, inductions to the Texas and National (2006) Aviation Hall of Fames, several schools, and was runner-up in the 1998 decision to make a $1 coin (she lost to Sacagawea ). Last year, she was honored by Google with a doodle on their search engine homepage on her 125th birthday
Bessie leaves behind a legacy of can-do behavior and not letting others keep you from getting your dream. She worked hard to accomplish her dreams, and she found a way to get it, despite the very real obstacles that were thrown her way simply because she was biracial and female.