Notable Signaleers


William Hallett Greene

First African American Signaleer – William Hallett Greene


Greene received his bachelor of science degree along with other members of his graduating class, on the evening of June 26, 1884, at the Academy of Music, not far from their beloved City College, then located at Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street.


Greene, slight of build, standing five-foot-seven and weighing only 132 pounds, according to a June 1884 issue of The College Mercury campus newspaper, had long wanted to be in the U.S. Signal Corps. In The Mercury, he listed his favorite person as "Uncle Sam" and his favorite course of study as astronomy.


And so two months before his graduation, Greene, just 19 years old, applied to become the first black member of the U.S. Signal Corps, the highly competitive U.S. Army unit that tracked weather patterns and was the precursor to the National Weather Service.


The Signal Corps required that applicants pass written examinations, and in May Greene scored highly on it.


But he was rejected, bluntly told by the Signal Corps Commander, Gen. William Hazen, that, according to Hazen's interpretation of the 1866 Army Reorganization Act, blacks were restricted to four regiments set aside for them, in the infantry and cavalry.


Young Greene turned to his college president, Alexander Webb, for help. And Webb, a former army general who had been a hero at the Battle of Gettysburg, responded right away. He dashed off a letter to Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (son of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln), writing: "This young man is the first colored student who has ever passed beyond the sophomore class of this college. He is the first colored graduate and is, by election, the secretary of his class, composed of some of the finest young men of this city.” Webb [photo, right] said he believed Hazen was erring in his interpretation of the Army Reorganization Act.


Lincoln not only agreed but in harsh terms ordered Hazen to accept Greene or any other black person who met the qualifications for the position.


Thus Greene effectively wrote his name on a bit of military history. He went on to attend the Signal Corps training camp at Fort Myer in Virginia, where newcomers were instructed in the specialized skills of the Corps, which in those days had to do with telegraph communications and the tracking of cloud and wind patterns. Greene must have felt well prepared for the tasks at hand, given his background at City College.





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