Story

Helen James' Fight for Equality in the Military

Posted on Wed, June 27, 2018
  • by: Patti WIlliams, Acquisition Archivist, National Air and Space Museum
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A new archival collection documents the story of Helen James, who was arrested and discharged from the US Air Force as part of the "Lavender Scare," a campaign to remove LGBTQ people from government employment in the 1950s.

Back in January of this year, I read an article in the Washington Post about Helen James, who enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1952. Receiving positive performance reviews, she was promoted from radio operator to crew chief, achieving the rank of Airman Second Class. While stationed at Roslyn Air Force Station in 1955, however, James came under scrutiny by the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) as part of the "Lavender Scare," the campaign to remove all lesbian and gay people from government employment in the 1950s. She was arrested and discharged as "undesirable" with no severance pay or other benefits. While James eventually moved to California, earned an advanced degree in physical therapy from Stanford University, and had a successful career, her less than honorable discharge status weighed heavily on her. So James, at age 90, sued the Air Force to have her discharge upgraded to honorable.

Formal studio portrait of Helen G. James, in uniform.

Formal studio portrait of Helen G. James, in uniform. Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, NASM-9A14833-030A.

Helen James’ story resonated with me. As the acquisition archivist for the National Air and Space Museum, I am charged with bringing in collections that document the history of aviation and spaceflight, including the achievements of the many individuals who furthered our progress in those fields.  Unfortunately, the contributions of great Americans who happen to be women, LGBTQ individuals, or people of color, are sometimes forgotten. James’ story was illustrative of how and why this forgetting can happen in our institutions and the effect that it can have on the citizens who support and advance our technological progress.   

We want to commemorate all aspects of our history in air and space; the more voices we add to this history, the richer the record becomes.

Usually the National Air and Space Museum Archives is so inundated by the public offering to donate material that we rarely have the time, or need, to seek out collections. However, one of the images in the Washington Post article showed James holding her photo album from that time period, and I was intrigued. I reached out to the reporter and asked that he forward my information to James and the lawyer who was handling her discharge case, J. Cacilia Kim.

I heard back almost immediately from them and I asked if James would be interested in donating her photo album, as well as some of the legal documentation explaining her case. At that point, the case had not been decided, but regardless of the outcome, I believed that the collection had merit for inclusion in the Archives.

View of Helen G. James posed inside the main cargo door of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain.

View of Helen G. James posed inside the main cargo door of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain. Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, NASM 9A14833-059B.

Shortly after our initial contact, the case was decided in James’ favor.  She is now eligible for all veterans benefits, and she was able to participate in an Honor Flight to Washington, DC, in April, when I was able to receive her generous donation. It was an honor to meet her and preserve her story. We want the National Air and Space Museum Archives to commemorate all aspects of our history in air and space; the more voices we add to this history, the richer the record becomes.

Explore the new Helen G. James collection, including scans of all her photos and legal documentation.

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