Mustering Out: the Navy’s First Black Yeowomen

Today’s post was written by Cara Moore Lebonick, reference archives specialist at the National Archives at St. Louis

Disclaimer: Some of the partial records featured contain language that does not reflect modern accepted terminology. Please keep this possible sensitive language in mind when reviewing the records.

yellow card showing status of Fannie Foote as enlisted personnel, muster roll section
Orders for Fannie Foote Y3c

The United States entered the Great War, now known as World War I (WWI), with a surge of new enlisted and conscripted soldiers hitherto unseen. These new soldiers went through various mustering depending on their branch of service. For the U.S. Navy (USN), one division monitored and tracked all of these soldiers throughout the war: the Mustering Personnel Division. It was lead by John T. Risher, a Black seaman, and the active service personnel for the bulk of U.S. involvement in WWI were Black Yeowomen (a Naval member who performs administrative duties). These first Black yeowomen to serve in the U.S. Navy were later referred to as the “Golden Fourteen (14),” a nod to the Golden 13, the first Black Navy Officers who would not come until WWII. These fourteen women were first written about by Kelly Miller. There, he provided a listing of their names. These names had some spelling variations that made future research more difficult, but not impossible thanks to their available National Archives Catalog entries.

While Black individuals had an established history in the military leading up to WWI, in the USN most Black seamen served as non yeoman in the mess department. Black and white women also had military related history, largely limited to civilian or nursing roles. The 1917 draft included Black men for the first time, but the Navy still limited the roles they could hold in their service. They were allowed to serve on ships with white seamen but those who remained stateside were limited. Women were not subject to the draft and Black women, therefore, followed the same role limitations as Black men. They were not thought to be part of the Navy yeoman rank prior to President Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981, which officially desegregated the Armed Forces. In Marie Mitchell’s Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) we can see that she was serving in the mess unit prior to her transfer.

The beginning of women in the Navy starts with the loophole of the Naval Reserve Act allowing women to enlist, a fact exposed by Loretta[o] P. Walsh. She enlisted in the Naval Reserves on March 17, 1917 as a Yeoman (F), which would later become known also as Yeowoman and Yeomanette. As the history goes, more white women followed by enlisting and filling clerical vacancies as Yeoman (F), with the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels in full support. Armelda H. Greene, though, enlisted August 13, 1918 becoming a Black Yeoman (F). She was assigned to the “Division of Enlisted Personnel, Mustering”, referred to as the Muster Roll Division, the first of the Golden 14.

letter shows list with dates of changes in Greene's service from enrollment to honorable discharge
Letter from Lt. B. G. Jones regarding the naval service of Armelda Greene

Contrary to what some histories may claim, the records of the Golden 14 are not lost, it just takes a bit of specialized reading and interpretation of records to piece together the whole unit. For example, Kathryn E(ugenia) Boyd nee Finch (one of the 14), is commonly misspelled as Catherine. Misspelling the name can make it difficult to discern if the correct individual has been identified. Through these women’s records we can glimpse not just Black service in the Navy, but the service of Black females decades prior.

lists letters and records that were contained within about her service record
File envelope for Olga Jones

The Golden 14 were assigned to the U.S.S. Triton and based permanently stateside. The Muster Roll Division worked from Washington, D.C. which was segregated through WWI, as was the Navy and most of the United States.

card shows her duty (clerk); date/place of birth (12/27/1895), etc
Information card for Carol Washington

This is significant because it indicates that as these women moved into brand new roles as sailors, while they may have experienced segregation in their hometowns or in their previous employment, they would now be experiencing segregation in both the Armed Forces and in the city they were working in, all while trying to provide service to the country, the first of their race and gender for the Navy. This could have affected many areas of their lives, from accommodations to everyday needs like childcare. Some found ways to ease the problems, for instance, census records indicate that Armelda Greene was a lodger with Division leader John T. Risher.

change of assignment is to report to Mr. Parker for duty in the Enlisted Personnel
Memo for change of station for Sarah Howard, Sep 17, 1918

The WWI active unit consisted of all Black females – the first Black female non-nursing unit of the Navy- and finding any mention of them is hard to come by. They were never at sea due to their race and gender and as such, they did not show up on revolving muster rolls or ship logs to track their movements. Many histories overlook them all together, stating erroneously that WWII was the beginning of Black Naval service as yeomen. Another near miss these women almost all share is initial rejection of service due to a medical disqualification. Those who were initially rejected have notes or memos in their OMPFs recommending them for service specifically to the Muster Roll Division. This fact may support the theory that Risher individually and purposefully built this Division to his specifications. By having women that would otherwise be unfit for service, Risher may have had an easier time convincing the Navy to let him pool their service together in his command despite their gender and skin color.

JT Risher informs that she has been physically rejected for service, but asks the Bureau of Medicine to reconsider
Memo regarding Josie Washington’s rejection for service with a recommendation for a reconsideration, Oct 17, 1918

Greene, Finch, and a team of other Black women served in a clerical capacity. Finch was purportedly sought out by her adoptive cousin, John T. Risher, who was in charge of the muster rolls and in need of a team to keep the quickly growing number of personnel records and stations updated as the United States trained and sent men to war in exponential numbers, reaching 10,000 per day at its peak. These Yeowoman were among those who made all the ship and deck logs referenced to this day. The Mustering Personnel Division were the clerks who kept track of all the personnel and made it possible for officers and relatives alike to track sailors at any moment.  They were paid at the rate of a “newly enlisted man.”

The women of the Golden 14, who filled the clerical positions within the Muster Roll Personnel Division were as follows:

enrollment form for Ruth Davis
Enrollment form for Ruth Davis, 1918
  • Armelda H. Greene
  • Kathryn E. Finch
  • Pocohontas A. Jackson
  • Fannie A. Foote 
  • Ruth Davis (nee Welborne and shortly Osborne during service) 
  • Olga F. Jones 
  • Sarah Davis 
  • Sarah E. Howard 
  • Marie E. Mitchell 
  • Anna G. Smallwood 
  • Maud C. Williams 
  • Carol E. Washington 
  • Josie B. Washington and 
  • Inez B. McIntosh

These are the complete and correct spellings of their names at the time of separation from the U.S. Navy as found in their OMPFs which are held at the National Archives at St. Louis. These are all cited at the end of the article as found in our National Archives Catalog, complete with service numbers. Some of their name changes, due to marriage or other, can be found within their records on applications for benefits or proof of service requests.

We are very fortunate to have these records as the USN records were unaffected by the 1973 fire. Records of these women were also found within the National Archives at St. Louis’s Deceased Veteran’s Claim Files  which cover completed claims made prior to 1955. The index for part of this collection, the Veteran’s Affairs Master Index of claims prior to WWII, has been digitized and is available for research on FamilySearch (free account login required) – these can be a great way to find later married names, too!  Likewise, their unit may be found on the WWI Navy Muster rolls (the very same that they created) held at the National Archives in D.C. 

Finch was discharged on November 17, 1919 with an Honorable Discharge and a Naval Reserve pin, as did all service members from WWI with honorable discharges.

The work of the Muster Roll Personnel Division is held at the National Archives in D.C. You can learn more about requesting Muster Rolls here. As for Finch, that was not the end of her civil service. She continued to work in Washington, D.C. for the Post Office. She was not the only one of the Golden 14 to move into the civilian federal sector following discharge from the USN, either. There are requests for verification of veteran’s status found in several of their OMPFs. These civilian personnel records can be another difficult search since some of these women would marry, resulting in Official Personnel Folders (OPFs) under their new name. Finch, for example, married and her last name changed to Boyd with the middle initial becoming F. However, given a starting name and agency the Reference Department at the National Archives can work to find their OPFs among their holdings of federal personnel records for Executive Branch agencies. Finch was a Post Office clerk until 1933, when Section 213 of the Economy Act forced her to resign in order for her husband to retain his position with the Department of the Navy. Her Post Office OPF even has a photo of her!

3/4 portrait, Finch is wearing glasses and a coat with fur collar
Photo of Kathryn Finch

After Kathryn Finch Boyd’s death, her husband was able to collect a widowers pension, as detailed in her Deceased Veteran’s Claim File, also part of our holdings as mentioned previously. Through the various personnel files for all of the Golden 14 we are able to build their individual histories and very important contributions to our nation’s history through their service. Without the Personnel Muster Division and the work of these veterans we would be unable to track many other veterans and their war service. Recognizing these Black women and their important contributions to the US Navy/military can help to defeat racist beliefs and provide a true telling of American history. Happy Veteran’s Day to those who have helped our nation.

Records of the Golden 14 at the National Archives:

  • Kathryn Finch Boyd, Official Personnel Folder, Personnel Files (NAID 3750622), Post Office Department, Records of the Civil Service Commission, RG 146, National Archives at St. Louis.
  • Davis, Ruth Welborne, Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3214899), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Davis, Sarah L., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3214948), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Finch, Kathryn E., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3294223), RG 24 United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Foote, Fannie A., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3306522), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Greene, Armelda H., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3363963), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Howard, Sarah E., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3477235), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Jackson, Pocahontas A., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3496523), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Jones, Olga F., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3517922), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • McIntosh, Inez B., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3670483), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Mitchell, Marie E., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 3706936), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Smallwood, Anna G., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 4295451), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Washington, Carol E., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 4413534), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Washington, Josie B., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 4413636), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis
  • Williams, Maud C., Official Military Personnel File (NAID 4445704), RG 24, United States Navy, National Archives at St. Louis

Further Reading:

One thought on “Mustering Out: the Navy’s First Black Yeowomen

  1. Still we rise in the face of ignorance that our past has shown us and of that which we live through today!

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