Black Catholic Recalls Making History

Source: Catholic New Service

Sandra Williams Ortega remembers the moment like it was yesterday. “I have no idea how they chose me,” she recalled.

A 1953 graduate of St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore, Ortega attended the historically black Morgan State University where a few months prior to graduation, she had been selected by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to identify qualified African American females to serve in the United States Air Force Officer Core.

Stunned by the news, Ortega recalls that when War Department (presently known as the Department of Defense) officials first informed her that she had been selected her parents did not believe them.

It would take three more subsequent visits before Ortega and her parents could come to terms that she had been selected to fill the historic role as the first African American female commissioned in the Air Force.

A major in French, Ortega had not been involved with the ROTC program at the college and was not interested in serving in the military. However, during a conversation with the university president earlier in the year, she had made such a positive impression he recommended her to the ROTC program.

Accepting the offer, Ortega recalled the words of the ROTC colonel, “This job has nothing to do with you.”

Coming at a time of intense racial reckoning in the United States following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education, the effervescent Ortega said she wanted to make her family, school and country “proud.”

On July 4, 1958 Sandra Williams Ortega became the first African American woman directly commissioned as a U.S. Air Force officer. During the course of her career she served on 4 continents including a military site in Antarctica.

She would go on to obtain a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a doctorate in sociology. Over the course of her career, she served as a personnel officer, assistant hospital registrar and chief of personnel and administration. (At the time of her commissioning, women were not permitted to be pilots in the Air Force.)

After leaving the military, she continued to have a distinguished career in public service where she held several civilian leadership positions, including service in the Federal Women’s Program, an initiative of President Lyndon B. Johnson established in 1967 to help break down barriers in the hiring of women in the federal government.

Ortega, now 84 in March and now lives in New Jersey, where she worships at St. Joan of Arc Church in Marlton.

Source: Catholic News Service