MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - On Sept. 5, 1972, three women made history in Montgomery by becoming the first African American women in the country, without prior military service, to be sworn into the Air National Guard.
67-year-old Armestine Mullins Graham, from Glenwood, Alabama, was sworn in alongside Jessica Hall and Annell Wyatt at the Montgomery Air National Guard Base.
“I had no idea or anything about being the first,” Graham said reflecting back on that day. “It was just a job opportunity in the beginning you know, but it was a great opportunity.”
In 1972, with Vietnam War still going on, Graham said the Air National Guard was looking to recruit more people.
“The Air National Guard had been looking for and recruiting and contemplating on bringing black women into the Air National Guard,” Graham said. “It was a time to recruit people who were local.”
“It was exciting,” Graham went on to say. “I just knew I was going some place different that I had not been, and it was just quite an experience.”
Graham did her basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. She continued her training at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado, before returning to Montgomery.
Graham eventually became a photo lab specialist, responsible for developing film shot from the planes.
“The planes fly over different areas, simulated targets, and they take pictures and they bring them back to the photo lab which I processed and then printed out and had image interpretation to determine if they’ve actually got the target they went after,” Graham said.
She had the opportunity to go on several different special missions, including a trip to Niagara Falls in Buffalo, New York.
“Our unit went there during a blizzard!” Graham said with a smile.
Her fondest memory was getting to fly over Crenshaw County in an F-4 and capture images of her hometown.
“I still have those pictures now, so I can look back and remember,” Graham said.
Graham remembers being well received into the Air National Guard, but did recall being the only female in her unit.
“It was all men,” Graham said. “But as long as you do your job, they would help you, and there were times when you never had to do anything by yourself. It was teamwork.”
Graham said by being among one of the first African American women in the organization that she feels like a role model for other women.
“Once women found out what you did and what you were actually doing, they would come to you for advice and guidance,” Graham said.
In fact, some women are already following in her footsteps.
“This is Erica Bland, she’s one of the young ladies that I somewhat inspired into going into the military,” Graham said pointing to an image of the young lady on her cellphone. “She is a part of the Air Force now stationed in Japan.”
Graham reminds other women that they too can do anything they set their mind to.
“Be encouraged. You can do all things. There’s nothing impossible,” Graham said.
Graham served in the Air National Guard until 1979. Shortly after, she moved to Connecticut to be with her husband Alexander Graham. There, she was the visiting nurse of South Central Connecticut for 30 years.
In 2010, she moved back to Glenwood, Alabama, to live with her mother Ernestine Mullins and her husband. She has been a certified nursing assistant at Troy Health and Rehabilitation Center since Nov. 2010.
Graham has one son, and two grandchildren.
Another one of the three women sworn into the Air National Guard on Sept. 5, 1972, was 66-year-old Jessica Hall from Grady, Alabama.
“We went out that day and got sworn in, and we didn’t realize that we were the first Black women until after we were sworn in,” Hall said. “I saw it as a way to help Black females to want to join the Air National Guard which was a blessing for me all of those years, so I wanted to share that.”
Hall joined the Air National Guard to further her education in dentistry.
“It was an opportunity for me to see the world and get my education,” Hall said. “It was very exciting to me.”
Hall did her basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. After that she went to Dental Assistance school at the school of Health Care Science in Wichita Falls, Texas. In 1975, she earned her Register Dental Hygienist License from UAB in Birmingham.
Hall was able to work three jobs while serving in the guard.
Hall said she feels like in a lot of ways she paved the way for other women to want to follow in her same path.
“I met a lot of girls after my time who had gone in and they said that it had inspired them to want to join,” Hall said.
Hall said she was grateful for the ability to share her faith with those she met along her journey.
“That’s when it really became rewarding,” Hall said. “Getting to tell people about Jesus was very exciting for me. I used to have bible studies in my barracks.”
Hall was in the Air National Guard for 24 years. She has been retired since 2018.
She has a son and a daughter and four grandchildren. She was born and raised in Prattville, but has been living in Grady for nearly 20 years.