Prior to retiring from the United States Air Force, Major-General Marcelite J. Harris had the highest position as a woman and a person of color; this was no ordinary feat. Looking on her journey to the Black Collegian in 1989, she found this success remarkable, especially when she accidentally stumbled into her job. All she wanted to be as a teenager in college was to be an actress, but the obstacles she experienced made that a pipedream.
When she told her father about her desire, he didn’t discourage her, but instead set one condition: she could only relocate to New York and pursue it if she got an acting job. Following multiple failed attempts, coupled with tiny earnings after college, she regarded the military as her last option.
Perhaps, fate had its own ideas for Major-General Marcelite; none of her family members had a military past, and her only brief contact with what military life could be was during a USO tour to Germany and France, where she saw commanders from a distance. Born in Texas to Cecil O’Neil Jordan, a former postal supervisor, and Marcelite Terrel Jordan, a high school librarian, she was raised to achieve her full potential regardless of the obstacles in her path. This helped her to retain a tenacious stance in life, no matter the hurdles.
She soon applied to the Air Force’s Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in speech and theatre in 1964. Her hard work and remarkable abilities propelled her quickly up the ranks, making her the first female aircraft maintenance officer and one of the first two female officers commanding at the Air Force Academy, according to NBC News. She broke down boundaries and blazed a trail for many women by becoming the first female Air Force officer in a mostly male-dominated field.
Notwithstanding this achievement, Major-General Marcelite desired more. She then applied for entrance to the school for aircraft maintenance officers. Despite the fact that her original application to the institution was denied, she persisted and was eventually admitted, graduating in 1971. Three years later, she was promoted to maintenance supervisor and transferred to more difficult jobs in Vietnam. She was the first black woman to be promoted to brigadier general in the United States Air Force and later became the first woman to command a largely male battalion.
She was named Director of Technical Training at Headquarters Air Education and Training Command, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, in 1994. There, she was in charge of a larger global workforce of 125,000 technicians and managers, as well as a $20 billion budget. A year later, she was promoted to major general, the highest rank ever obtained by a woman in the United States Air Force and the first black woman in the whole Department of Defense. Before retiring in 1997, she was helpful in establishing a permanent office for the NATO Military Committee on Women (CWINF).