Major General Marcelite Jordan Harris, the first Black woman to serve as a major general in the U.S. military, was laid to rest with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on Feb. 7, alongside her husband, Lt. Col. Maurice Harris, USAF (Ret.).
Harris died unexpectedly on Sept. 7, 2018, at age 75. She served more than 30 years in the U.S. Air Force in a variety of capacities.
Born Jan. 16, 1943 in Houston, Harris graduated from Kashmere High School before enrolling at Spelman College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Harris also received an honorary doctorate of letters from Spelman and earned a B.S. in Business Management at the University of Maryland University College.
The trailblazer received her commission through Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas in 1965. During her tenure in the U.S. Air Force, she was the first woman aircraft maintenance officer and one of the first two women air officers commanding at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
It was a revolutionary time for women to be in the workforce.
“This was during the late 1960s,” Harris told the Department of Defense in a 2013 interview. “The late ’60s saw us do away with the draft. We saw civilian women going for equal pay with upward mobility. The world was just changing itself. Women were burning bras and everything in protest.”
In 1975, she was named White House social aide and personnel staff officer under the presidential administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
She made history in 1991 when she became the first African-American female Brigadier General in the Air Force. Then, in 1994, she was named the first female director of maintenance and deputy chief of staff for logistics at the U.S. Air Force Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
At the Pentagon, she managed a workforce of more than 125,000 technicians and managers and maintained the $260 billion Global Reach-Global Power aerospace weapons system inventory; she was promoted to Major General, according to her published obituary.
Her promotion made her the highest-ranking woman in the Air Force, and the highest-ranking Black woman in the entire Department of Defense. Before retiring in 1997, Harris helped establish a permanent office for the Committee on Women in NATO within the organization’s existing Military Committee.
Former President Obama appointed Harris to the Board of Visitors of the Air Force Academy, from 2010 to 2016.
As well as having a thriving career, Harris also raised two children, Tenecia Harris and Lt. Col. Steven Harris.
The mother and history-maker offered the following career advice for those following her footsteps:
“Know your job and do it well. Know your people,” she said, in an interview. “Nothing is denied you by going into the military. You are important. You’re important to the mission and to the United States. You’re important to the president. You are important, and that’s what matters.”
Harris was named Woman of the Year by the National Organization of Tuskegee Airmen in 1990, honored with the Trailblazer Award by the Black Girls Rock foundation, and received the Living Legacy Patriot Award by the Women’s International Center, to name a few accolades.
A celebratory memorial service at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery followed the burial.