Harris, Marcelite Jordan 1943–
Marcelite Jordan Harris 1943–
Hard work; Devotion to duty; Above all, the will to succeed. These are the qualities that define Major-General Marcelite J. Harris, who was the highest ranking woman in the U.S. Air Force before she retired in 1997. Despite her undisputed position as a role model and an inspiration to all female military personnel, Harris has always refused to put her exalted status down to her obvious talent and intelligence. “You don’t have to be gifted, just dedicated,” she modestly told Jane’s Defence Weekly magazine. “There’s nothing mysterious about it,” she continued.
Mysterious no. Capable, yes, especially when you consider that her final assignment made her accountable for the efficiency of every single weapon and every last aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force. As if these responsibilities were not challenging enough, she also brought up two children during her years of active service, and somehow found time to involve herself in the activities of her wider family group. But this veritable kaleidoscope of roles has never overwhelmed her in the slightest. “Being a mother, being a wife, being an officer in the Air Force are not roles that pull in opposite directions,” she told Ebony in 1995. “They identify me,” she continued.
The ambition and the persistence that shaped Harris’ success have been noticeable family characteristics for five generations. The first to show them was her great-great-grandfather, a man named Pierre Landry who was born to a slave woman and the master of Provost Plantation in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. Landry lived his first 13 years in virtual freedom. Then he was sold to a new master. History has not reported how the teenager accepted this wrench in his life, but documents show that, young as he was, Pierre Landry was enterprising enough to hold the post of head carpenter at his new home while also operating a store selling approved items to slaves. After the Civil War freed him to make his own choices, Landry’s determination to make something worthwhile of himself spurred him to towards public office. He became mayor of a nearby town called Donaldsonville in 1868, then moved on to become a representative in the Louisiana State House. Here he stayed until 1884, after which he became a lawyer.
The next generation of Harris’ ancestors likewise passed the drive to succeed down through their descendants. Notable among them was her great-grandfather, I.M. Terrell, remembered for founding the first school for blacks in Fort Worth, Texas.
Marcelite Harris herself was born in Texas, though her hometown was Houston. She was born to Cecil O’Neal Jordan, a former postal supervisor, and high school librarian Marcelite Terrell Jordan, conscientious parents who taught her to set her sights high, to put her best efforts into getting to the top of whatever profession she chose, and to leap the hurdles of race or gender discrimination rather than letting them block her path to success. What these parental maxims gave her were two
Born January 16, 1943, in Houston, TX; daughter of Cecil O’Neal Jordan and Marcelite Terrill Jordan; married: Maurice A Harris; children: Steven & Tenecia. Education: Kashmere Gardens Junior-Senior High School, graduated 1960; BA in Speech & Drama from Spelman College, 1964; Squadron Officer School, 1975; Air War College, 1983; BS in Business Management from the Univ. of Maryland, Asian Division, 1989; Harvard Univ. Senior Officers National Security Course, 1989.
Career: Asst. Dir. for Admin., 60th Military Airlift Wing, Travis Air Force Base, CA, 1965–67; Admin, Officer, 71st Tactical Missile Squadron, Bitburg Air Base, West Germany, 1967–69; Maintenance Analysts Officer, 36th Tactical Fighter Wing, Bitburg Air Base, West Germany, 1969-70; Maint. Supervisor, 49th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1971-72; Job Control Officer, then Field Maint Supervisor, 916th Air Refueling Squadron, Travis AFB, CA, 1972-75; Personnel Staff Officer and White House Social Aide, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, Washington, DC, 1975-78; Air Officer Commanding, Cadet Squadron 39, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO, 1978-80; Maint. Control Officer, 384th Avionics Maint. Squadron, McConnell AFB, Kansas, 1981-82; Dir. of Maint., Pacific Air Forces Logistic Support Center, Kadena Air Base, Japan, 1982-86; Dep, Commander for Maint., Keesler AFB, Miss. 1986-88; Commander, 3300th Technical Training Wing, Keesler AFB, Miss, 1988-90; Vice Commander, Oklahoma City Air Logistics Ctr., Tinker AFB, OK, 1990–93; Dir. of Technical Training, Headquarters Air Education and Training Command, Randolph AFB, TX, 1993-94; Dir. of Maintenance, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, DC 1994-97 (retired).
Military awards: Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster; Bronze Star Medal; Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster; Presidential Unit Citation; Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with “V” device and eight oak leaf clusters; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.
who taught her to set her sights high, to put her best efforts into getting to the top of whatever profession she chose, and to leap the hurdles of race or gender discrimination rather than letting them block her path to success. What these parental maxims gave her were two priceless gifts—ambition and the perseverance to achieve any goals she set herself.
Despite the fact that she was born in the middle of World War II, Harris had no personal contact with the armed services until she was a speech and drama student at Spelman College. Then, as part of a company on a USO tour to Germany and France, she saw the military life at a distance. At that stage of her life, it held no attraction for her. She had high hopes of becoming an actress, but discovered soon after her 1964 graduation that the bright lights of Broadway were far easier to admire than to attain. Unable to find work in her field, she took a job with the YMCA Headstart program and started attending law school at night. Unfortunately, this new direction was also doomed to failure. Juggling all the commitments she had undertaken made for a far-too-strenuous work load, which was made even harder by an extremely meager paycheck. She began to look around for other options.
“If someone had told me when I graduated from Spelman that I would be in the Air Force a year and a half later, I would have laughed at them,” she recalled, when speaking to The Black Collegian in 1989. Still, after eighteen difficult months, the armed services definitely seemed attractive, especially when considered in the light of a steady salary and a chance to see the world.
Harris entered the Air Force’s Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas in 1964, and was commissioned a year later. Within a few months she was sent to West Germany, to serve in the Bitburg Air Base postal and printing service. While she was there, she became an aircraft maintenance analysis officer at the suggestion of one of her superiors. While interesting, this new career track brought her an unexpected challenge. She was the first female Air Force officer in what had always been regarded as a man’s field, and she found her colleagues unwilling to accept that she could be interested in such supposedly masculine matters as aircraft hydraulics or aerodynamics.
To improve both her knowledge of aircraft engineering and her credibility with the maintenance crews she would be supervising, Harris applied for entrance to the Aircraft Maintenance Officer School. Her first application was turned down. Undiscouraged, she simply tried influential enough to improve the prevailing attitude towards military women, but it was an issue that was to be on her mind for the next several years.
Finally admitted into the Aircraft Maintenance Officer School, Harris completed the course in 1971. Three months later she was promoted to the position of maintenance supervisor, and was sent to Thailand to keep a vigilant eye on the aircraft of a tactical fighter squadron flying sorties over Vietnam. As a woman she did not find this easy, but she was determined not to let her gender stand in the way of success. “I can’t afford to go around saying it’s hard for me because I’m a woman,” she conceded as she reflected on the situation in Ebony, “My feeling is that people recognize that women can do the job,” Harris added. True to her own creed, she met the gender problem head-on, found a workable solution, then acknowledged without coyness that the flawless performance of every aircraft under her command in Thailand was largely due to the cooperative working relationship she had formed with the maintenance crews on the base.
Though she had started the 1970s on foreign soil, Harris was not destined to indulge her love of overseas travel again for a full decade after she returned to America in May, 1972. Initially she was assigned to Travis Air Force Base in California, where she served first as job control officer, then as field maintenance supervisor with the 916th Air Refueling Squadron. Next came an interval in Washington, DC, where she became a social aide to President Jimmy Carter before departing for a two-year appointment as “Air Officer Commanding” of Cadet Squadron 38 at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas was her next home, where she stayed for two and one-half years.
In November, 1982, Harris was reassigned to Kadena Air Base, Japan, where she became director of maintenance at the Pacific Air Forces Logistic Support Center. Based there until 1986, she somehow found time, during her closely-packed days, to work her way first through courses from Air War College based at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base, then through a Bachelor of Science in Business Management from the University of Maryland’s Asian Division.
By 1989, Harris had soared through 24 years of continuous Air Force service. Highly experienced, unfazed by crisis, she now assumed command of the 3300th Technical Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. The appointment brought her into the lime-light as the first female wing commander ever to head the base, and only the third woman ever to attain such a post in the Air Force’s 70-odd years of operation. Marcelite Harris was clearly headed for the topmost ranks of the military.
The following year, Harris became the first black woman in the U.S. Air Force to become a brigadier general. At this exalted rank, with 25 years of experience behind her, she was deemed suitable for an appointment as second in command of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. As one of only five American logistics centers storing weapons poised to defend the country, the facility at Tinker Air Force Base carried the huge responsibility of seeing that the weapons and planes housed there were available at a moment’s notice in case of need, and that they were in top working order. Harris’ attitude to her new position made it clear that she realized the importance of these priorities, and that she intended to see that they were filled, by carrying out her duties to the letter. “I believe that we should have a technologically superior and well-trained force, so that enemies will wake up each morning and say’No, nottoday; let’s not attack America,’” she declared to Ebony, in 1995.
Her precision and devotion to duty were not lost on the 22,000 personnel under her command. Although an infinite number of details went into the maintenance and servicing of all the weapons, the B-52 bombers and the other aircraft on the base, nothing escaped the new general’s eagle eye. “She takes a strong personal interest in every subject that she’s involved in,” was one worker’s opinion stated in Ebony, strongly corroborated by her only superior officer, Major General Joseph Spiers. “General Harris brings a kind of energy and enthusiasm to her job that is contagious,” he declared in Ebony, in 1992: “she is an excellent role model for people in and out of uniform,” Stiers concluded.
In 1995, Harris was promoted once again, this time to the rank of Major-General. Not only did this make her the highest-ranking woman in the Air Force, but also the highest ranking black woman in the entire Department of Defense. Soon afterwards she was posted to the Pentagon in Washington, DC, where, as director of maintenance and deputy chief of staff, she was now accountable for maintenance operations at every base operated by the Air Force. Heading one of the service’s largest operations, the general commanded a workforce of more than 125,000 people, each of whom needed a precise understanding of every weapon they were handling, in an aerospace inventory so huge that the annual cost of keeping it on the cutting edge easily topped $20 billion.
Despite the demands of her very prominent position, General Harris did not forget the commitment she had privately made to stand as a role model for all women serving in America’s armed services. In 1997, shortly before she retired from active service, she helped to establish a permanent office for the Committee on Women in NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization), within the organization’s existing Military Committee.
The new organization’s mission was very precisely stated. Its primary reason for existence is to see that women are used by the military in places where their talents can best be used; to ensure that the quality of their lives is as productive and serene as their duties allow, and to make sure that they receive the same opportunities for advancement as their masculine counterparts do.
As the 20th century nears its end, though equality for women in the armed services has long been a given in several countries (Norway, for example, boasts at least one woman submarine commander) it is obvious that the NATO committee still has a great deal of work ahead to bring the same advantages to military women in America. Despite the maturing of the feminist movement in the wider world, in the services there are still fields where women were not welcomed with open arms. Newspaper headlines in 1997 made much of the 20 female freshmen entering The Citadel, South Carolina’s formerly all-male military academy, noting pointedly that for the first time in its history, the institution had appointed a female dean to oversee their interests. Also invariably mentioned was an unsavory incident of only two years earlier, when a would-be Citadel student named Shannon Faulkner had been taunted and tormented by male upperclassmen until she had left the institution.
Such incidents, based on the fact that women service personnel are generally lighter and usually shorter than their male counterparts, have always been given short shrift by General Harris. “Fighting a battle and winning the war is more shrewdness than physical capability,” she said in Jane’s Defence Weekly. “If you are shrewd, you are going to be able to do what you have to do. I do not care how large you are,” she added.
Hawkins, Walter L., African American Generals and Flag Officers, McFarland & Company, 1992.
Ebony, December, 1992; October, 1995.
Smith, Jessie Carney, Editor, Epic Lives, Visible Ink, 1993.
The Black Collegian, Mar/April, 1989.
Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 28, 1997.
Jet, November 18, 1996.
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