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AF general shatters both gender, racial barriers

  • Published
  • By Martha Lockwood
  • Air Force News Service
Born about the time the Tuskegee Airmen were earning their reputation over the skies of North Africa and Italy, Marcelite Harris would go on to break a number of racial and gender barriers during an illustrious Air Force career.

Harris was born Jan. 16, 1943, in Houston and attended Spelman College in Atlanta, where she earned a bachelor's degree in speech and drama in 1964. She then attended Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where she was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1965.

During the early days of her career, Harris held assignments as an administrative officer in California and West Germany, before transitioning into the maintenance field by attending the aircraft maintenance officer's course at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois, and graduating as the first female aircraft maintenance officer.

Her first assignment as a maintenance officer was to support the Vietnam War as a maintenance supervisor with the 49th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Korat Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand. After stints back in California and Washington, D.C., Harris broke another barrier as one of the first women to be an air officer commanding at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

After commanding an avionics maintenance squadron and a field maintenance squadron, both in Kansas, and a director of maintenance in Okinawa, Japan, Harris would make another first - this time as the first woman deputy commander for maintenance.

But her biggest accomplishment lay ahead, when in 1991, Harris became the first female African-American general, when she pinned on her first star as the vice commander of the Oklahoma Center Air Logistics Center.

Harris retired from the Air Force in early 1997, where she had been serving as the director of maintenance, deputy chief of staff for logistics, Headquarters Air Force. At that time, she was the highest ranking female officer in the Air Force and the highest ranking African-American female within the Defense Department.

Harris continues to contribute to the Air Force even after her retirement. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed her a member of the Board of Visitors for the U.S. Air Force Academy. As a board member, she inquiries into the morale, discipline, curriculum and other matters deemed appropriate. The board submits reports to the secretary of Defense and the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and Congress via the secretary of the Air Force.

As she continues to serve the Air Force she serves her community. She is a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. For her works, in 2010 she was nationally recognized by the Black Girls Rock Foundation with the Trailblazer Award.