“Every shut eye ain’t sleep,” is an African American proverb that aptly addresses the presence and many contributions of African Americans in espionage. These unsung heroes have been active agents in the defense of American freedom on the frontlines and behind the scenes of every American military conflict. Whether clandestinely relaying messages across enemy lines, reporting intelligence to allies in battle, or commandeering enemy vessels—their veiled presence has been constant in our country’s protection of democracy.
In honor of Black History month, DC Lottery and the Charitable Games Control Board, in partnership with the International Spy Museum recently launched its 2015 Black History Poster Heroes: African Americans in Espionage that profiles extraordinary clandestine African American men and women throughout history. While the nature of their efforts required a cloak of secrecy, their stories are numbered and varied. What is shared is their collective courage, loyalty, and opposition to tyranny.
Born enslaved in Virginia during the time of King George’s War, with permission of his holder, James Armistead joined the Continental Army in the battle of the American Revolutionary War under the Marquis de Lafayette—in whose honor he would later adopt this surname. Armistead infiltrated the camps of the notorious British Brigadier General Benedict Arnold and Lord Cornwallis posing as a fugitive slave. Serving the British troops in this role, he would record their tactics and report back to operatives fighting on the side of America. His communications were essential in the Battle of Yorktown and the overthrow of British forces. Where many enslaved gained freedom as a condition of military service, Lafayette remained bonded until he petitioned the Virginia Assembly for his freedom with a testimonial of his service from the Marquis de Lafayette that stated, “This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honour to command in this state. His intelligences from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.”
Harriet Tubman (c. 1822-1913)
Respectfully known as the ‘Moses of her people’ for ushering numerous enslaved persons to freedom, Harriet Tubman is most often associated with her epic works as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. The same stealthy mobility and furtive operations that facilitated repeated and undetected journeys across military fronts were enlisted by the Union Army to disable, upset, and aid the fall of travel and supply utilized by the Confederate States Army. Traveling as far south as Florida, she served the Union Army as a nurse, by scouting enemy posts, and as a spy. She was a daring leader behind combat lines and on the battlefield. In 1863, after a successful maraud leading Colonel James Montgomery’s Union troops, General Rufus Saxton reported to Secretary of War Staton, “This is the only military command in American history wherein a woman, black or white, led the raid and under whose inspiration it was originated and conducted.” While aiding Union efforts, she helped many seeking freedom to realize their goal by delivering them to safe harbors. Whether on the frontlines or shepherding people out of bondage, Ms. Tubman fought in the war for freedom on two sides—for her people and her country.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
An icon of the Jazz Age—singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker is internationally recognized as an entertainer. She was also an agent of the French Resistance during World War II. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis Missouri, the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture would catapult herself to the intercontinental stage with audiences easily engaged in English and French. Refusing consent of segregated engagements at home, it was her appreciation of France’s acceptance that led to her work as an ‘honorable correspondent’ in the war against Germany. Capitalizing on her celebrity status, Ms. Baker mingled with military personnel, politicians, and bureaucrats at parties and during performances. She re-counted pertinent intelligence to aid the French Resistance. Baker also smuggled important information out of France. No one suspected that her sheet music was covered with messages written in invisible ink or that her dress contained hidden photographs. She was awarded the Croix de guerre and received a Chavalier of the Legion d’honneur, two distinguished French military commendations.
*COLLECTION FEATURE — See Josephine Baker’s sheet music in the Spy Museum collection.
Captain Gail Harris (1949 – )
At the time of her retirement in 2001, US Navy Captain Gail Harris was the highest-ranking African American woman in the United States Navy. Hailing from the ghettoes of Newark, New Jersey, Captain Harris’ destiny to serve in the US Navy was cemented at the age of 5, when she saw a World War II-themed movie that featured a scene with Navy pilots being briefed before the climactic Battle of Midway. Then, she decided that was what she’d do when she grew up. Unaware of the existence of a federal law which prohibited women from going into combat—which would not be changed until 1994—she forged ahead with her dream. In 1973, she became the first woman in US Naval history to serve as an Intelligence Officer in an operational Navy aviation squadron. Her career included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War, to El Salvador, to Desert Storm, to Kosovo, and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. For every job assignment taken, Captain Harris was the first woman or first African American for that post, and was frequently hand-selected for challenging jobs based on her outstanding performance. Her career highlights include being pulled from her Hawaiian assignment 18 months early in 1988, and sent to South Korea to head up the intelligence support for the Games of the XXIV Olympiad (1988 Summer Olympics). This task involved extensive coordination with the United States and South Korean military, intelligence and civil agencies. She was also hand-selected by the Director of Naval Intelligence and Commander of US Naval Forces Central Command to fill an interim position as Acting Naval Attaché in Egypt, thereby becoming the first female to serve as a military attaché in a Middle Eastern country.
Retired US Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Malcolm Wrightson Nance holds the distinction of being one of a select few African-American intelligence operatives who engaged in the secret war against Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization years before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Born in Philadelphia, PA, Mr. Nance hails from a family boasting over 100 years of military service: fighting in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the War on Terrorism. In 1981, he entered Naval Intelligence learning to speak Arabic, break enemy codes, interrogate prisoners and track international terrorists across the globe.
For more than twenty years, Mr. Nance conducted numerous secret covert and clandestine intelligence missions in many Middle Eastern, African and South Asian countries as well as participating in combat missions in Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Syria. He often worked from intelligence collection platforms that included the Battleship USS Missouri, aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, destroyers, high speed special boats, helicopters and drones. However, many more missions involved working in remote, austere environments where his knowledge of foreign languages and his ability to blend in to collect information proved vital to protecting the lives of American citizens.
While working with desert tribes, watching for foreign spies, and supporting Special Forces–Malcolm managed to survive roadside bombs, machinegun and rocket ambushes, walking through minefields, suicide bombers, anti-ship missiles, depth charges, and an explosion from a sea-mine that badly damaged his ship. He later became a master of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. He formed a top secret school that taught Army, Air Force and Marine Corps Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and US intelligence officers how to detect, survive and if necessary escape from terrorist captivity. A fierce advocate of holding the moral high ground in intelligence activities he was called to testify before Congress against the use of torture on captured enemy prisoners. His powerful testimony would be quoted by President Obama who proclaimed “Waterboarding is torture … period,” and then halted the use of unethical and ineffective interrogation methods. Mr. Nance is the author of several books on al-Qaeda and his textbooks on terrorism are used by the FBI, CIA and global intelligence agencies and a regular speaker at the International Spy Museum. He attributes his success in intelligence to an early love of reading, geography, foreign languages and studying the history of other African American spies.
Find copies of the DC Lottery’s 2015 Black History Poster are available free to the public and are available in small and large quantities by contacting the DC Lottery at 202-645-8950. Original artwork by Karen Y. Buster.
Want to learn more about African Americans in espionage? Don’t miss SPY’s upcoming program: The Secret History of History : The Role of African Americans in Intelligence Operations on Wednesday, February 25; 6:30-8:45 PM. *Click here for tickets.