I’m ashamed to say that until the 44th NAACP Image Awards Show this year; I had never heard of Vice Admiral Michelle J. Howard. She was there to receive her NAACP Chairman Award. I first caught a glimpse of Vice Admiral Howard on the red carpet before the show began and something about her grasped my attention. From her hairstyle; to the military dress she wore; to the gleam in her eye; she just exudes femininity, real woman, determination and leadership. I could feel she was important but was unaware besides being a person like all of us, just what her significance was. Well, I continued to watch the show and just had to learn for myself and then I did some online research. The following is what I’ve learned.
Michelle Janine Howard was born April 30, 1960. (I just love her middle name.) She is one of four children born to retired American Air Force master sergeant Nick Howard and his British, Oxford-educated wife Phillipa and she is married to Wayne K. Cowles (a retired Marine). Michelle is a native of Aurora, Colorado and in 1978 she graduated from Gateway High School. Howard’s parents made it a point to instill in her and her siblings a strong sense of purpose, a respect for education, and a commitment to justice and equality. By taking to heart what her parents instilled in her, Howard became a great student and an avid reader, loving books by inspirational and historical figures such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Sojourner Truth and W.E.B. Du Bois. Vice Admiral Howard also used these same values to transform her own life into one of many firsts and of great historical significance.
Around the age 12 and having a brother named Michael enlisted in the Navy, a young Michelle was attracted to the Navy’s uniform and saw an opportunity to lead, so it became a goal of hers to attend the Naval Academy. Her brother Michael however dismissed this desire of hers, because women were not permitted at Annapolis in 1972. This policy or restriction changed just four years later though and it’s a good thing for the government that it did. According to Howard, her mother, Phillipa, was not so quick to accept the restriction. "Howard told The Orange County Register her mother said, 'If you still want to go when you're older and (the academy) is still closed, we sue the government.” “‘If we win, that's what's called setting a precedent.'" Even though by the time of her high school graduation in 1978, two classes of women had already enrolled in the Naval Academy, still Howard and other females endured harassment from their male counterparts and still Howard stayed on course and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1982 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics. By completing advanced qualifications in personnel and engineering training and serving in a variety of challenging posts both at home and abroad, over the next 10 years Howard rose through the ranks of the U.S. Navy.
Already part of a group of trailblazers, Howard took advantage of a 1993 policy change that made it possible for women to move from support ships to combat vessels and in 1996 she became the first female executive officer on an American warship, known as the USS Tortuga. Executive officer is the number two position on an American warship. During her duty as executive officer Howard completed her command qualifications, and graduated from the Army's Command and General Staff College in June of 1998 with a master's degree in military arts and sciences and a concentration in history. Then only three years later in March of 1999, Howard became the first female captain of the USS Rushmore when she was named commander of the 15,000-ton amphibious assault vessel, which contained a crew of about 400 sailors and more than 350 battle-ready marines. This promotion also made Howard the first African-American woman to command a Navy combat vessel. Howard has been commended by her crew members for her fairness and dignity along with equal treatment of men and women. She is also known for having a great sense of humor. During a promotion ceremony at Hampton Roads Naval Support Activity on Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, Howard was promoted to deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces command in Norfolk and she became the first black woman to receive a three-star-rank in the U.S. armed forces.
The admiral said so many people, including friends and family, had contributed so much to her career. "It takes a village to accomplish anything, and I've been fortunate to have a wonderful village to take the ride with me," she said. Howard also credits her sociology teacher at Gateway High School, Chuck Woodward, for helping her appreciate all that has taken place. "He reminds me in many ways life is a journey, and we get so focused on reaching the destination, like we're riding on a train, that you can forget to meet and talk to people along the way," she said. Standing only five foot and two inches tall, Howard has an enormous presence when she walks into a room and in history. Not only is Howard’s presence significant to the history of women and African Americans but also to military history, American history and World history. In my eyes she is a certified and fully blossomed Chocolate Rose. Vice Admiral Howard I thank you for all you do and the standard of greatness that you have set.
"I’m really quite thrilled that the stars aligned to allow me to command a ship.” "You train your whole life to be in command. I am comfortable with responsibilities and figuring out how operations need to go. That’s part of who I am."