Celebrating Women’s History Month: Wing recognizes first female African-American general

  • Published
  • By Neil Nichols
  • 4th Fighter Wing historian
We currently live in a society where being first is an important goal, but being first also carries a significant responsibility. If there is one person that was eager and readily accepted the responsibility of being the first, look no further than Maj. Gen. Marcelite Harris. Throughout her Air Force career, General Harris was a walking checklist of a woman of "firsts." 

Born Jan. 16, 1943, General Harris entered the Air Force in 1965, after graduating from Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., with a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech and drama. A woman with a determined mission to excel and to be the best persistently served as the motivation for General Harris during an Air Force career that spanned more than 31 years with a variety of assignments in education, maintenance policy development and maintenance of aerospace weapons inventories. General Harris was the first African-American female to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force, and the first African-American female in the U.S. military to achieve the rank of major general, but that was just the summit of her list of "firsts." In 1970, General Harris was the first woman aircraft maintenance officer for the U.S. Air Force. Then in 1986 she was the first woman deputy commander for maintenance. In 1978 she was one of the first of two women air officers commanding at the United States Air Force Academy. She also served as a White House social aide during the Carter administration. 

In 1994, General Harris served as the director of maintenance at Headquarters United States Air Force, in which she was responsible for organizing, training and equipping a work force of more than 120,000 technicians and managers. She also maintained more than $260 billion in Global Reach Global Power aerospace weapons systems inventory. She developed maintenance policy, ensuring the readiness of the single largest element of manpower supporting Air Force combat forces worldwide. General Harris coordinated and successfully defended an annual budget of more than $20 billion to the office of the Secretary of Defense, Office of Management and Budget and Congress. 

Many have recognized the dedication and excellence of General Harris, to include the National Organization of Tuskegee Airman in 1990, "Dollars and Sense Magazine" in 1991, the National Political Congress of Black Women in 1995 and the National Federation of Black Women Business Owners in 1995. In 1996, General Harris also received the prestigious 'Ellis Island Medal of Honor,' which is awarded to individuals for showing outstanding qualities in their personal and professional lives, yet maintaining the richness of their particular heritage. 

General Harris received numerous medals and decorations including the Air Force Commendation Medal with oak leaf clusters, Presidential Unit Citation, Air Force Commendation Unit Award with "V for valor" device and eight oak leaf clusters and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm. 

After retiring from the military in 1997, Harris applied her leadership and management expertise to the space industry. In 1999, she joined United Space Alliance, which NASA contracts to run the manned space program, and she served there until 2002. As the United Space Alliance's chief executive, she conducted business and community relations with senior executive officers of large aerospace companies. She also acted as the liaison between the Alliance and the Florida governor's senior cabinet members on space industry issues, maintaining funding through networking with key members of the Florida legislature and Congress. 

So today, I tip my hat to Maj. Gen. Marcelite J. Harris, a woman who knows the joy and responsibility of being the first.