This Woman Posed as a Black Man to Get in the Army

Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry / Chr. Barthelmess /Wikimedia/ Public Domain

July 5, 2017

While today African-Americans make up close to 20 percent of the U.S. military, there was a time when that number was zero.

After Congress enabled Black men to join the army in the late 1800s, creating the “Buffalo Soldiers,” it became a chance for many who had known nothing but enslavement to experience a new way of life.

But what did this mean for Black women? Would you believe us if we told you there was, in fact, one female Buffalo Soldier?

Although women were not allowed to join the military, the legendary Cathay Williams had a trick up her sleeve. She was destined to secure a spot in the army in spite of the law and her gender.

Shortly after the onset of the Civil War, her hometown in Missouri was raided by Union troops and all captured enslaved Blacks were forced into working as cooks, laundresses, and nurses.

Unsatisfied with her role as a cook, Cathay experienced several battles from afar, grew particularly fond of military life, and dreamed of becoming a full-fledged soldier.

It is hard to believe that anyone could sneak into the military, but that is exactly what Cathay did.

After her stint as a cook ended, she had the bright idea to rearrange her name to “William Cathay” and pose as a man in order to enlist in the army. Given there was no medical check at the time, she, being healthy and tall (5’9”), was deemed fit for service.

With this courageous and rebellious decision, Cathay became the first Black woman in the Army and the only one to be a part of the Buffalo Soldiers nearly 70 years before President Truman would sign the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act.

Cathay’s reason for joining the forces is the most compelling and heartwarming part of her story. Coming from 17 years of enslavement and full reliance on her master’s resources, she refused to ever be dependent upon another person again.

Tasting freedom in the military rid her of any “slave mentality” and led her to go as far as compromising her own identity to build a life for herself.

As a community, we have a cultural legacy of fending for ourselves by any means necessary. Cathay Williams’ journey from plantation to distinguished soldier exemplifies the ethics of self-reliance and self-sufficiency that resonate so deeply within Black history and embodies our collective progress towards independence.

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