Army officer. Earley was born on December 5, 1918, in Kittrell, North Carolina, the oldest of four children born to the Reverend and Mrs. E. A. Adams. Raised in Columbia, Earley attended Waverly School and was valedictorian of her class at Booker T. Washington High School. She received a scholarship to Wilberforce College in Ohio, where she majored in math and physics and graduated in 1938. While there, she was active in the Women’s Self-Government Association, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Young Women’s Christian Association, and Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Earley returned to Columbia after college and taught junior high school mathematics and general science while working on a master’s degree in vocational psychology. In 1942 she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later Women’s Army Corps or WACs) and entered the first class of African American female officer candidates in July at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. On August 29, 1942, the class was called to receive their commissions alphabetically and Earley (then still Adams) became the first African American female officer in the WACs. She spent the next two years at Fort Des Moines and rose in rank to become the Training Center’s control officer in early 1944. In March 1945, shortly after her promotion to major, Earley took command of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in Birmingham, England. While she was in command of the 6888th, the unit moved to France. At the end of the war she had achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel and was the highest-ranking black female officer in the WACs.
Earley left the army in March 1946 and earned a master’s degree in vocational psychology from Ohio State University. In 1949 she married Stanley A. Earley, Jr., a medical student, and they lived in Switzerland while he attended medical school. On returning to the United States, they settled in Dayton, Ohio. Earley raised a son and daughter while maintaining an active career in charity and service organizations such as the United Way, American Red Cross, Young Women’s Christian Association, the Urban League, and the United Negro College Fund. She also served as codirector of the Black Leadership Development Program, was a member of the board of directors for Dayton Power and Light, and was a member of the board of trustees of Sinclair Community College. In 1989 her autobiography, One Woman’s Army, was published.
Earley was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979, was named one of the Smithsonian Institution’s 110 most important historical black women, and was inducted into the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame in 1991. The Smithsonian also held a program in her honor at the National Postal Museum in 1996. She received honorary doctorates from Wilberforce University and the University of Dayton. At a salute to African Americans in World War II on February 17, 1995, she introduced the guest of honor, President William Jefferson Clinton. Earley died in Dayton on January 13, 2002.
Earley, Charity Adams. One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC. 1989. Reprint, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996.
Obituary. Columbia State, January 22, 2002, p. B6.