How the Identity of the Only Black Woman to Serve in the U.S. Army in World War I Was Just Discovered

Published: 19 June 2024

By Elizabeth Cobbs
via the TIME magazine website


A member of the 52nd Telegraph Battalion speaks on a telephone at a crossroads in the Argonne Wood near Montfaucon, Meuse, France in 1918, during World War I. US Army/Getty Images

African-American heroines are everywhere in U.S. history — though they were often unseen by contemporaries. Sometimes, they simply hid.

Juneteenth is a fitting occasion to celebrate one woman who did just that: Renee Messelin was a member of the first unit of American women soldiers who served in World War I. Yet her full identity remained hidden until just last week, more than a century after she served.

In a famous photograph taken outdoors in Paris in March 1918, Messelin sits to the left of two other uniformed women and stares straight ahead. Thirty women soldiers stand behind them, many with eyes riveted skyward for incoming artillery. They had been bombarded the night before.

While the photo has long been famous, no one knew at the time that Messelin was Black. Instead, she hid her race, knowing that the Army would not accept Black women. Her deception reveals the lengths to which some citizens went to serve their nation at a time when women couldn’t vote and Jim Crow robbed Black Americans of the rights won after the Civil War.

When the head of the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Paris in 1917, he discovered that trained men needed a full minute to patch through a telephone call, so he cabled Washington. “On account of the great difficulty of obtaining properly qualified men, request organization and dispatch to France of force of woman telephone operators all speaking French and English equally well,” General John Pershing wrote in 1917. All “should be uniformed” and take the Army oath.

The Army responded with press releases to newspapers across the nation in November 1917, recruiting women. Seventy-six hundred volunteered for 100 spots.

As the Army soon found, female telephone operators patched through five calls per minute. Commands to advance, fire, and retreat were delivered mostly by phone in World War I. Five commands per minute, instead of only one, was a matter of life and death.

During the fiercest fighting at the Battles of St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, women combatants operated switchboards 24 hours a day. Six units of these “Hello Girls” units patched through 26 million vital messages over the course of the war.

Renee Messelin pictured at left with the First Unit of The Hello Girls in Paris in 1918, and at right in an article that appeared in The Fresno Morning Republican, Fresno, CA, on Sunday, November 21, 1920.

Messelin was one of these women, and one of their leaders. The child of two eminent Black Chicagoans, she was committed to making her mark. Her mother, Mamie Caldwell Rich, was a benefactor of the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Black women fleeing the South. Her father, Mack Caldwell — who had died a decade earlier — had been Grand Secretary for the United Brotherhood of Railway Porters, a union of African-American railway workers and the predecessor of the most influential Black union in the nation.

Although race was not a question on the Army’s form, Messelin would have known that African-American women need not apply. Of the 233 female soldiers who ultimately served in France, all were thought to be white until the recent revelation about Messelin’s race.

Because operators could overhear every classified military call, Army Intelligence scrutinized applicants. This did not keep some from successfully hiding their own secrets, however. In Messelin’s unit, for example, two sisters from Berkeley tricked investigators into believing they were 18 and 21, rather than 16 and 18.

On her application, Messelin listed her hometown as Marseilles, taking advantage of the fact that she had married a Frenchman and learned his language. In reality, Messelin was born in Chicago and had moved to San Francisco. In a charming French lilt, she also lied that she did not know her mother’s address in France.

Investigators had little incentive to push Messelin or probe her story further. Pershing urgently needed bilingual, educated, trustworthy women. Messelin fit the description to a tee. Even better, she was an experienced telephone operator with supervisory experience.

Within three months, she had won appointment as one of four supervisors under Grace Banker, commander of the first unit. Each supervisor would manage a telephone exchange near the front or behind the lines. As Messelin boarded a troop transport for France, she asked the Army to record her emergency contact as a “friend” in Chicago, Mrs. Mamie Rich — who was actually her mother.

Read the entire article on the TIME website.
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