Cathay Williams was the first African American woman to serve in the US Army, she did so by pretending to be a man and going under the pseudonym, William Cathay.
Cathay was born in Independence, Missouri in 1844. Her mother was a slave and her father a ‘free man of colour’. She was born into servitude, working in the home of a plantation owner. When the Union Army came to her town in 1861 slaves were considered ‘contraband’ property. It was routine for them to be forced into the army to work for them, and this is what happened to Cathay. She was to serve as a cook and laundress, against her wishes, as she recalled: