From the Cotton Fields to a General

In 1954, when Irene Trowell was a teenager, the South was a difficult place to live for people of color. Segregation was in effect, and very few opportunities existed for young black women. Although Irene’s parents worked very hard, they were still very poor. Both had only a third-grade education, but they had a happy, positive outlook on life that they passed along to their 11 children. Irene’s parents constantly extolled the importance of a good education and an active church life.

IreneThe family’s sole income came from the crops they grew on their farm in Montmorenci, six miles outside the town of Aiken, South Carolina. When they were old enough to help, the children had daily chores that interfered with their ability to attend school fulltime. “When harvest time came for the cotton crop,” Irene remembers, “we’d have to be out of school for more than a month to help bring it in for market.”

Enchantment in the Sky

On one of these harvest days, Irene looked up from the row of cotton she was gathering and marveled at a plane that roared overhead. The contrails it left in the sky enthralled the teenager. She stared at the sight, making a solemn promise to herself that someday she would fly on an aircraft just like the one she watched from the cotton field.

“My brothers and sisters just laughed at me when I told them what I intended to do,” chuckled Irene. “It seemed completely crazy that I could ever achieve a dream such as that at that particular time. But I was determined that I would fly.” Soon Irene, who always excelled in her studies, got a job at a local diner. She worked her way through high school and gave the earnings to her family to supplement their income.

Irene’s dream of flying never faded, although nursing seemed a more reasonable occupation—one that her mother had wished to pursue herself. Then in 1955, the Trowells’ local church raised $60 to add to the money Irene’s family had been saving.

Together the Trowell family decided that Irene should be the first one to seek advanced education. She enrolled in Columbia Hospital School of Nursing at Jersey State College and graduated with honors in 1959. As her brothers and sisters became old enough to consider going to college, they looked to Irene for guidance. She shared her finances so each could continue their education, just as her family and church had done for her.

The Girl From Aiken Gets Her Wings

Irene was working as a head nurse in New York City when a colleague told her about the Air National Guard. All at once, her aspirations of being a nurse and being able to fly seemed to merge. Irene soon became a flight nurse and traveled all over the world.

IreneAs she steadily moved up the ranks in the Air National Guard, she earned a master’s degree in public health from Yale University and a doctorate in education from Columbia University. Major-General Irene Trowell-Harris is the first African-American female in the history of the National Guard to be promoted to a general officer and the first female to have a Tuskegee Airmen Chapter named in her honor.

Today, she heads the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans in Washington, DC. She frequently meets with the President and Mrs. Obama on various issues that relate to women in the armed forces.

Major-General Irene Trowell-Harris’s life brims with astounding achievements and awards—but what is her most cherished accomplishment? “Even with all the places I’ve been and all the wonderful opportunities I’ve had, the most exciting moment of my life was when I received my wings. That crazy idea I told my brothers and sisters in the cotton field in 1954 came true!”

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“Even with all the places I’ve been and all the wonderful opportunities I’ve had, the most exciting moment of my life was when I received my wings."

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