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Harris, first African-American woman to serve as Major General, to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery

November 23, 2018

Marcelite Jordan Harris — a Houston woman who became the first African-American woman to serve as a major general in the U.S. military — will be buried in February in the Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Harris, who died unexpectedly on Sept. 7 on a cruise from Cuba, was 75.

“She broke barriers. She opened doors,” her daughter, Tenecia Harris, 37, said. “She made history because she was herself.”

Although best known for her groundbreaking advancement in the military, Harris was a beloved sister, mother and friend who never lost her devotion to her loved ones or her country.

Born Jan. 16, 1943 in Houston, Harris graduated from Kashmere High School where her mother, the late Marcelite T. Jordan, worked as a librarian. She graduated from Spelman College and the University of Maryland University College. She later received an honorary doctorate of letters from Spelman.

During her tenure in the U.S. Air Force, she was the first woman aircraft maintenance officer and one of the first two women air officers commanding at the U.S. Air Force Academy. She also served as a White House social aide and personnel staff officer under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Former President Barack Obama appointed her to the board of visitors of the Air Force Academy, where she served until 2016.

Her historic promotion to major general came while working at the Pentagon, where she managed a workforce of more than 125,000 technicians and managers and maintained the $260 billion Global Reach-Global Power aerospace weapons system inventory, according to her published obituary.

Longtime friend Vera Whisenton of Galveston met Harris during their freshman year at Spelman. She had just finished calling her parents from a phone booth one day when she noticed a girl in a ponytail and bright braces waiting outside.

“I’m Marcelite and I’m from Houston,” Whisenton remembered her saying.

Their friendship lasted for more than 50 years — a lifetime of parties, phone calls and memories.

Whisenton remembers the time they got lost for 20 minutes in an Atlanta parking garage. She recalls Harris’ dream to move to New York or Los Angeles to become an actress. She knew how hard it was for Harris to find a job after college before she signed up for the Air Force.

Harris once told Whisenton that she joined the Air Force because “the uniforms are pretty.”

Tenecia Harris said her mother never stopped being herself, even as she moved up the ranks. She knew what she liked and she worked hard, she said.

Harris raised two children, Tenecia and her brother, Lt. Col. Steven Harris, managing to achieve what her daughter calls true work-life balance.

She decorated the house for Christmas according to color schemes, loved all types of line dancing, once taught her classmates how to do the Macarena, and loved oatmeal raisin cookies.

“Growing up for me, she was my mother,” she said.

It wasn’t until she was in high school that she realized the significance of her mother’s military accomplishments.

The accolades were many: the “Trailblazer Award” by the Black Girls Rock Foundation, Women of Legacy Award by Black Enterprise, Living Legacy Patriot Award by the Women’s International Center, Woman of the Year by the National Organization of Tuskegee Airmen, and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

“To say I’m proud is such an understatement,” her daughter said.

Harris died at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Her sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Richard Johnson, as well as her longtime companion and travel partner, retired Lt. Col. David D. Branch, were with her.

She will be buried on Feb. 7 at Arlington National Cemetery alongside her husband, Lt. Col. Maurice Harris.

ileana.najarro@chron.com

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