Cathay Williams was born a slave in Independence, Mo., in 1844. As she grew up, she worked as a house slave on a plantation near Jefferson City, Mo.
Early in the Civil War, Jefferson City was conquered by Union troops, and captured slaves were pressed into service for the Union Army. Williams was forced to serve the 8th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment. She traveled with the Union Army through Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia. When the Civil War ended, Williams was working at Jefferson Barracks, south of St. Louis.
After the Civil War, the U.S. Congress established the first peacetime all-black regiments in the U.S. Army. They were known as Buffalo Soldiers. Cathay Williams posed as a man, called herself William Cathay, and joined the 38th Regiment.
She is now known to be the first African-American female to enlist, and the only person believed to have served in the U.S. Army posing as a man.
After being organized at Jefferson Barracks, the 38th Infantry was stationed in the New Mexico Territory and along the transcontinental railroads during their construction.
Williams contracted smallpox shortly after enlisting and was hospitalized frequently after that. The post surgeon finally discovered William Cathay was actually a woman, and she was discharged from the army in 1868.
The story of Cathay Williams will be shared tonight at “Voices of Our People,” a Black History Month celebration at the Richland Southeast Library.
Now in its 10th year, year, the celebration will include song, dance, poetry and other celebrations of African-American history. The program will be hosted by Positive Rapper and DJ Sheem One. Jessica Anderson, Latoya Adams, the Mighty Sounds of Harmony, Minister Willie J. Henderson and 11-year-old Ciona Seals are among the singers scheduled to perform.
Titus, Brandy Green and Ebony Butterfly will perform spoken word selections, and The Bibleway Praise Dancers will also perform.
The story of Cathay Williams will be shared by Trooper Maple Davis.
Voices of Our People begins at 6:30 tonight at the Richland Library Southeast, 7421 Garners Ferry Road.