The month of May has many celebrations — there’s May Day, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, World Press Freedom Day, and even African World Heritage Day, to name a few. May is also Arthritis Awareness Month, Better Sleep Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, National Walking Month, Women’s Health Care Month, and Military Appreciation Month.
And then there’s Memorial Day — a day set aside to honor and mourn the U.S. military personnel who died while serving in the Armed Forces.
On Memorial Day, flags are flown. Parades are planned. Cemeteries are visited. And military personnel are remembered and honored.
Yet, outside of the Tuskegee Airmen, there is little widespread recognition of Black Americans who served in this country’s military — even though more than one million African American men and women served in every branch of the U.S. armed forces during World War II.
Until recently, one of the least recognized groups of Blacks in the armed forces was the 6888th Central Postal Directory. However, on May 3, 2023, Governor Wes Moore — the only sitting Black governor in the United States — signed the 6888th Bill, which stipulates that “the Maryland governor annually shall proclaim March 9 as 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion Day.”
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was an all-Black and Hispanic, all-female battalion that served during World War II. Despite their important role in sorting and delivering mail to American troops in Europe, the battalion’s contribution to the war effort was largely unknown to the public for many years.
There are several reasons why the 6888th Battalion remained relatively unknown. One reason is that their work was not seen as glamorous or exciting compared to combat roles, and therefore their contributions were often overlooked or minimized.
More importantly, because the battalion was made up primarily of Black women, their achievements were often dismissed or ignored due to systemic racism and sexism. And the 6888th Battalion’s work was often shrouded in secrecy, as their mission involved handling sensitive and confidential mail for American troops.
As a result, their work was not widely publicized, and the battalion was often moved from place to place without much fanfare or recognition.
It was not until many years after the war that the contributions of the 6888th Battalion began to be recognized and celebrated.
In recent years, there has been increased awareness of the battalion’s achievements, and efforts have been made to honor their service and ensure that their contributions to the war effort are not forgotten.
“The women of the 6888th were discouraged when they discovered warehouses crammed from floor to ceiling with mail and packages that had not been delivered for at least two years,” Kevin M. Hymel wrote for the Army Historical Foundation. “Rats the size of cats had broken into some of the Christmas care packages for front line soldiers and eaten their contents. The women went to work, organizing a system that would break the bottleneck of undelivered mail.”
Hymel went on to say that “Work conditions were less than ideal. The women pitched mail in damp, poorly lit warehouses without heat. The windows were all painted over for blackout conditions. To battle the cold, some women resorted to wearing ski pants, field jackets, fatigues, or anything else to keep warm. They worked eight-hour rotating shifts, seven days a week. The job, which was supposed to take them six months, was completed in only three.”
Their motto was “No mail, low morale.” They focused on getting mail to soldiers and raising their morale.
I could go on and on about the 6888th and their amazing service to this country, especially during a time when Black women were marginalized and ignored.
I could spend hours writing about these 855 women who were stationed in Europe working three 24-hour shifts, seven days a week, to sort 18 million letters addressed to U.S. troops scattered across Europe during World War II.
I could write about the three 6888th members who died there and were buried in Normandy in coffins made by French prisoners.
I could write about their commanders Major Charity Adams (the first Black woman to be an officer in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps — later called WACS), Captains Mary F. Kearney and Bernice G. Henderson.
I could revere the name of my aunt, PFC Vashti Murphy Matthews, who was a member of the 6888th — although we never heard her talk about her time in the Army.
And I could certainly point out that if it weren’t for the AFRO’s extensive coverage (1945-1946) of these brave soldiers, the names and hometowns of many would not be known today.
And, due to the tireless efforts over the past five years of Col. (U.S. Army ret.) Edna Cummings and others like Master Sergeant (ret.) Elizabeth Anne Helm-Frazier, more people are learning about this brave, dedicated, pioneering battalion. Col. Cummings is an amazing community servant and role model extraordinaire. She looks at her quest to highlight the 6888th as “the right thing to do.”
Cummings recently said:
In 2018, Liz (Master Sergeant Helm-Frazier) and I began a journey to raise funds for the 6888th Monument at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, to honor these unsung WWII Sheroes. Little did we know that a monument would launch a movement of international recognitions, an award-winning documentary, a Blue Plaque at the King Edward’s School in Birmingham, England, a Congressional Gold Medal(2022), a post office renaming in Buffalo, New York, an April 2023 military base renaming at Ft. Lee, Virginia (after LTG Arthur Gregg and the 6888th’s Major Charity Adams), a Broadway-bound musical by Executive Producer Blair Underwood, a Netflix movie, and many other state and local proclamations. I am grateful to be a part of sharing the Six Triple Eight’s history with the world.
In addition, Cummings noted that “Each year, March 9 will remind us of the selfless service of these Black women who served their country, when their country did not serve them.”
And, Col. Edna Cummings, we are grateful to you, MSG Helm-Frazier, and so many other outstanding Black female leaders who have served this country well and continue to serve. You are role models extraordinaire, as are the Black women who serve today in all branches of the armed services. Kudos to you for staying on the battlefield!
We are looking forward to celebrating 6888th Day in Maryland on March 9, 2024, and every year thereafter. And, who knows, by then, there may be other 6888th days throughout the nation!
Frances “Toni” Draper is the publisher of the AFRO-American Newspaper (the AFRO), with offices in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.