Black Catholic remembers making history with a commission as an Air Force officer
BALTIMORE (CNS) — Sandra Williams Ortega was stunned to see two high-ranking ROTC executives standing on her porch as she walked home from classes at Morgan State College in Baltimore.
The news they brought to Ortega’s parents was even more remarkable: Morgan State leaders wanted Ortega to be the candidate the university would nominate to fulfill President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s promise to give a black woman qualified for a direct commission as an officer in the still-young US Air Force.
It would take three visits before ROTC leaders finally convinced Ortega’s reluctant father to allow his daughter to accept.
“I have no idea how they chose me,” recalls Ortega, a 1953 graduate of St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore and former parishioner of St. Gregory the Great in West Baltimore.
With a major in French, Ortega had not been involved in ROTC in college, now Morgan State University, and was not particularly interested in a military career. However, she had made a positive impression on Morgan’s president during a conversation with him during his freshman year, and had also impressed ROTC leaders with her intelligence.
The gifted and effervescent young woman, a 1957 Morgan graduate, accepted the challenge of becoming an officer, taking to heart an ROTC colonel’s admonition to “make us proud.”
“He told me my job had nothing to do with me,” recalls Ortega, who turns 85 in March and now lives in New Jersey, where she worships at St. Joan of Arc Church in Marlton. “It has to do with opening doors.”
Ortega received her commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force on July 4, 1958, becoming the nation’s first African-American woman directly commissioned as a United States Air Force officer. Her distinguished career has taken her all over the world, including to a military site in Antarctica.
Ortega, who earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a doctorate in sociology, served as a personnel officer, assistant hospital registrar, and chief of personnel and administration. When she started her service, women were not allowed to be pilots in the Air Force.
After leaving the military, Ortega served in a variety of civilian leadership positions, including service in the Federal Women’s Program, which President Lyndon B. Johnson established in 1967 to help remove barriers to employment. women in the federal government.
Ortega also promoted alcohol and drug abuse prevention programs in the military and provided assistance to spouses of enlisted personnel born in other countries, creating the International Spouse Support Program for the Air Force.
Ortega was on the ground in New Orleans as part of a federal response for disaster victims following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His contributions were recognized by former New Orleans Mayor C Ray Nagin, who proclaimed a “Dr. Sandra W. Ortega Day” in the city in her honor. In 2018, Ortega was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
During her pioneering career, she clung to her Catholic faith as she faced racism, both overt and subtle. She embraced her role, believing it was made possible by God and the generosity of others.
When Ortega was around 9 years old, grand mal seizures suddenly began to convulse his body. Without warning, the girl randomly entered trance states before losing consciousness and experiencing the violent muscle twitches associated with epilepsy.
The ‘colored’ public school Ortega attended in West Baltimore in the 1940s lacked the resources to meet the girl’s new medical needs, so school officials expelled her . At a time when schools in Baltimore were strictly segregated, she said, there were no other public schools she could attend.
Her mother and father visited the Oblate Sisters of Providence “and asked if they would take me,” the white-haired woman told the Catholic Review, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “The nuns said, ‘Yes.'”
Tuition at their school, St. Frances Academy, was then $3 a month — money that Ortega’s parents, Arthur and Nellie Viola Williams, didn’t have.
“All the neighbors helped pay for my tuition,” Ortega said. “This is one of the intense blessings bestowed on me.”
Whenever Ortega had tantrums at her new school, the nuns took care of her.
“They put a little bed in the back of the room,” she explained. “One of the nuns would come back there to heal me if I went into a trance. They would give me my medicine and treat me.
Ortega described the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded in Baltimore as the world’s first religious community for black women, as gifted educators who knew many different languages and emphasized the great books. As a junior, Ortega spoke with an Oblate who encouraged her to contact Morgan State to pursue higher education. She was accepted and received a scholarship.
Ortega, whose seizures eventually subsided, recalled her mother singing with joy at the news of her daughter’s acceptance.
“Every black parent valued education because it was the hope of the black race,” Ortega said.
When Ortega was in officer school in San Antonio, she was the only black woman in a group or “flock” that included 20 white women.
Among the indignities she faced was hearing white parents screaming for their children to get out of the pool when she approached on a hot day. She was never asked to dance when she attended social events with other officers in training.
And, in what was one of the most painful experiences of her life, a white classmate told her she wasn’t welcome at a commissioning party at the co-worker’s house.
On the day of the party, all the other members left her standing as they boarded a bus to go to the celebration.
“That was one of the best lessons I learned about cruelty and the importance of omission,” Ortega said.
Ortega’s classmate was on the same level in the military, she said, but by the time she dismissed Ortega, she was wielding power.
“She became a mistress and I became a slave,” Ortega said. “She was superior and I was inferior. And that’s how one can be led to feel. Something like that still bothers me today.
On his first posting to Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Ortega quickly realized that his superiors had not initially intended to use him for important work. To make a difference, she took on tasks on her own, such as reorganizing messy medical records and documenting the hospital’s history on the base.
In Utah, Ortega met her husband, Julio W. Ortega. The couple married over six decades ago at St. Gregory in Baltimore and have three daughters.
Looking back on her career, Ortega said she has been blessed time and time again. She credits her military experiences – good and bad – with strengthening her strong sense of right and wrong and her commitment to justice.
“Because of the military, I own myself,” she said. “It’s empowered me to be – hopefully – a better person. No one owns me. I won’t allow it.
– – –
Matysek is editor of the Catholic Review, media outlet for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.