The Rev. Dovey J. Roundtree, as the constant flurry around her shows, stands very tall. When word got out that she was back in Washington this weekend, followers found out where she was staying. Within hours, a few well-meaning but uninvited guests had been ushered into her hotel room and were sitting on her bed, and even on her suitcase.
She is a woman of many accomplishments -- lawyer, civil rights advocate, ordained minister, perennial member of boards and commissions, friend to judges, defender of common folk and much more.
But what brought her to a podium yesterday was her military service, her historic role as one of the first members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, which in 1942 ended the male-only makeup of the country's armed services.
Roundtree, 83, who lives in her native North Carolina, delivered yesterday's address at the 48th annual convention of the National Council of Negro Women. The organization was paying tribute to its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, who was instrumental in breaking down barriers for women in the military and, particularly, in encouraging young black women like Roundtree to sign up more than a half-century ago.
The effect of Bethune's legacy was evident yesterday. The event honored several veteran WACs and a half-dozen African American women who are rising through the armed services' ranks. Among them are Brig. Gen. Mary L. Saunders, of the Air Force; Col. Gilda Jackson, Marine Corps; Col. Anita McMiller, Army; Lt. Cmdr. Sharon Donald-Baynes, Coast Guard; Capt. Lillian Elaine Fishburne, Navy; and Chaplain Imagene Stewart, a first lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol.
The presence of these women in uniform seemed to accentuate the value of their predecessors, or the pioneers, as Roundtree and the others were called. The officers' assignments and accomplishments -- where they have served, whom they have commanded, the honors they have received -- visibly impressed the crowd of several hundred women gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in Northwest Washington.
Jean Noble, dean of the council's Dorothy I. Height Leadership Council, announced that Fishburne soon will become a rear admiral, the first African American to reach that rank. Saunders has received many commendations, Oak Leaf Cluster followed by Oak Leaf Cluster. "That's tall cotton, we'd say in Georgia," Noble told the audience, which responded with whoops and shouts.
The standing of these officers was one measure of how much things have progressed for black women since Roundtree had the temerity to go to the U.S. Post Office in Charlotte and convince "a little sergeant, all red around the neck," that she had every right to join the Army.
She had grown up in a family that fought back quietly, Roundtree said in an interview after her speech. "Take that pickaninny from up there," the trolley driver would tell her grandmother when she insisted on sitting Dovey behind the man's seat. Her grandmother would protest the bigotry by getting off the trolley.
The Army sergeant rebuffed her that day, despite the law that allowed black women to enlist, and even threatened her with arrest. She "marched smartly out of his office," she told her listeners, and then went home and cried. She called Bethune in Washington, using a neighbor's telephone because her family didn't have one.
"There's no such thing as an Army for women in North Carolina," she informed the council's legendary founder, who had worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt in drafting the legislation that created the women's corps. "Miss Bethune, you almost got me in a mess."
Bethune suggested that Roundtree go to Richmond, where she received a warmer welcome. But the troubles began again when she and the 38 others who were the corps' first enlistees entered a mess hall for the first time and noticed that four tables were reserved for "coloreds." Roundtree and others marched out, and their actions, which presaged the civil rights protests, ended segregation in the mess hall.
Roundtree left the Army with a captain's rank, enrolled at Howard University's School of Law and later became one of several lawyers who broke the color barrier in Washington. In the 1950s she represented Sarah Keys, a WAC who was forced to give her seat on a bus to a white Marine. The case eventually led to a landmark decision by the Interstate Commerce Commission, which in 1955 desegregated travel across state lines.
Those honored yesterday attributed their success in part to the corps' African American members. But in interviews, they said the challenges they faced had more to do with sex than race; several joined before women were allowed into the service academies and at a time when the concept of family was limited.
"Women could be married as long as you didn't have kids," said Jackson, who joined the Marine Corps in 1968. "Women who had kids, they were politely asked to leave. You got married, you got out."
"Race was never the issue. The issue was that you were a woman," said Saunders, who enlisted in the Air Force in 1971, at a time when women were literally grounded. "When people asked why women couldn't fly, of course there was no reasonable way to explain that."
Roundtree, who later became the council's general counsel, called her time in the service "the greatest experience in my life." She recounted how, as a newly minted captain, she stood on a public square while recruiting, and "a simple black woman" came up to her.
"Daughter, what is you?" the woman asked.
"I said, Ma'am, I'm a member of the Women's Army Corps.' "
"She said, You is?' " Roundtree continued, describing how the woman walked around her, searched for her rank and missed it completely because she could not recognize, or did not expect, a black woman to have earned a captain's bars.
The woman concluded, "They haven't given you a stripe yet." CAPTION: The Rev. Dovey J. Roundtree, a civil rights advocate who was one of the first women in the military, speaks to the National Council of Negro Women. CAPTION: Army Sgt. Monica St. Hill, left, and Sheila Mitchell, of the D.C. National Guard, share a humorous moment during the speech by Roundtree, who joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942.