The U.S. Coast Guard has been around since 1790, but Black women weren’t allowed to join until 1945, when Dr. Olivia Hooker signed up and became the first. We’ll hear from Dr. Hooker, who recorded a StoryCorps interview before she died in 2018, at the age of 103.

Photo: Dr. Olivia J. Hooker (right) and her goddaughter, Janis Porter. Photo by Afi Yellow-Duke for StoryCorps.

Dr. Hooker was part of the first class of Black women to join; there were five of them. Decades later, another group of five women changed history, again. 

Photo: From the original caption for the extra photo: Olivia Hooker (in front) and fellow SPAR Aileen Anita Cooks, pause on the ladder of the dry-land ship ‘U.S.S. Neversail’ during their ‘boot’ training at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Station, Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, NY, 1945.

The Coast Guard’s main function is to protect U.S. shorelines, and there’s an elite crew of 800 pilots, who perform crucial search and rescue missions, often in adverse weather situations. For 215 years, not a single one of them was a Black woman. That was, until Jeanine Menze joined in 2005.

Photo: Cmdr. Jeanine Menze, stationed at Air Station Barbers Point, Oahu, Hawaii in 2006. USCG photo by PA2 Jennifer Johnson.

Jeanine fell in love with flying as a child in Jamaica, growing up near a flight path. Watching the planes fly overhead always filled her with joy, so she decided to pursue a career in aviation. 

While she achieved her dream and became a pilot for the Coast Guard, she was the only Black woman in that role for several years. At StoryCorps, she talked about how lonely her journey was, and how that changed when she met La’Shanda Holmes: her mentee and the second Black woman to become a Coast Guard pilot.

Unlike Jeanine, La’Shanda Holmes didn’t fall in love with flying as a child. Her mom died when she was young, and as a teenager she was placed into the foster care system. One night, she decided to make a list of things she wanted for her life, and after visiting a Coast Guard booth at a career fair, she had a plan.

Photo: La’Shanda Holmes at Air Station Los Angeles. U.S, in 2010. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Eggers.

When La’Shanda met Jeanine, and was introduced to the world of flight, the two of them quickly decided they would continue to make history together. La’Shanda would then go on to earn her own wings, becoming the second Black woman to become a pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard.

They sat down for StoryCorps to talk about what led them to the military, and ultimately, to each other.

Photo: From left to right, Jeanine Menze and La’Shanda Holmes, at La’Shanda’s flight school graduation at NAS Whiting Field, Milton, FL, in 2010. Courtesy of La’Shanda Holmes.

By 2014, there were five Black women pilots in the Coast Guard. They nicknamed themselves “The Fab Five”. Since then, that number has grown to six, with more waiting in the wings.

Photo: From left to right are Cmdr. Jeanine Menze, MH-65 helicopter pilot Lt. Cmdr. La’Shanda Holmes, HC-144 fixed wing pilot Lt. Angel Hughes, MH-60 helicopter pilot Lt. Chanel Lee, HC-144 fixed wing pilot Lt. Ronaqua Russell. 2019. Photo by Lt.Cmdr. Ryan P Kelley.
Top photo: Artwork by Lyne Lucien.

Released on January 4th, 2021.