Major General Marcella J. Harris, the first Black woman to serve as a major general in the U.S. military, was buried with full military honors Thursday morning in Arlington National Cemetery, reports NBC News and several other news sources. Harris, who died on Sept. 7, at 75, didn’t always envision herself breaking records in the military.
Born Jan. 16, 1943, in Houston, she wanted to move to New York City to become an actress, but there was one obstacle. “Her father told her she could only move to New York if she had a job after graduating college,” her daughter, Tenecia Harris, 37, told NBCBLK. “But that’s not really how acting works.” Upon graduating from Spelman College in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama, Harris couldn’t find a job performing, so she signed up for the Air Force instead. She quickly moved up the ranks, becoming the first female aircraft maintenance officer and one of the first two female officers commanding at the Air Force Academy.
“I remember when we found out she was promoted to second star,” Harris’ daughter said. “She looked at my dad and said, ‘We did it: We got the second star.’ It was a family accomplishment.” Harris also worked as a White House social aide and personal staff officer under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. She retired from the Air Force in 1997 as the highest-ranking female officer in the Air Force and the nation’s highest-ranking Black woman in the Department of Defense. Two years later, she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Spelman.
In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed her to the board of visitors of the Air Force Academy, which investigates the moral, disciplinary and academic affairs of the institution. Harris was as accomplished in her professional career as she was in her family life. Her daughter said she had an exemplary work-life balance and was always there for her and her brother, Lt. Col. Steven Harris. “Separating work and private life can be difficult for women in the 21st century, but my mom mastered it,” Harris said. “She never missed a birthday or recital. She traveled a lot, but she was there in all the important moments.”
Sometimes Harris’ military background and parenting would collide. Whenever she called upon her children to organize the house and do their chores, for instance, her children would affectionately say, “Here comes Mama General.” Harris died at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. She was to be buried alongside her husband, Lt. Col. Maurice Harris. “She and my father were true soul mates,” Tenecia Harris said. “Now they’ll get to be with one another again.”