BALTIMORE (CNS) — Sandra Williams Ortega was stunned to see two high-ranking ROTC leaders standing on her front porch as she was coming 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 put forth to fulfill a promise by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to give a qualified Black woman a direct commission as an officer in the still-young U.S. 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,” remembered Ortega, a 1953 graduate of St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore and a former parishioner of St. Gregory the Great in West Baltimore.
With a major in French, Ortega had not been involved in ROTC at the college, now Morgan State University, and was not particularly interested in a military career. She had made a positive impression on Morgan’s president during a conversation with him in her freshman year, however, and also had impressed ROTC leaders with her intelligence.
The gifted and effervescent young woman, who graduated from Morgan in 1957, accepted the challenge to become 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,” remembered Ortega, who will turn 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 the doors.”
Ortega received her commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force July 4, 1958, becoming the nation’s first African American woman directly commissioned as a U.S. Air Force officer. Her distinguished career took her all over the world, including 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. At the time she began her service, women were not permitted to be pilots in the Air Force.
After leaving the military, Ortega held a variety of civilian leadership positions, including service in the Federal Women’s Program, which President Lyndon B. Johnson established in 1967 to help break down barriers in the hiring of women in the federal government.
Ortega also promoted programs to prevent alcohol and drug abuse in the military and provided assistance to enlisted personnel’s spouses who were 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 in support of disaster victims after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Her 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 trailblazing career, she held fast 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 about 9, grand mal seizures suddenly began convulsing her body. Without warning, the girl randomly entered trancelike states before losing consciousness and experiencing the violent muscle contractions associated with epilepsy.
The “colored” public school Ortega attended in West Baltimore in the 1940s didn’t have the resources to accommodate the girl’s new medical needs, so school officials expelled her. At a time when Baltimore schools were strictly segregated, she said, there was no other public school for her to 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, Baltimore’s archdiocesan news outlet. “The nuns said, ‘Yes.’”
Tuition at their school, St. Frances Academy, was then $3 a month — money Ortega’s parents, Arthur and Nellie Viola Williams, didn’t have.
“All the neighbors pitched in to pay my tuition,” Ortega said. “It’s one of the intense blessings that I have been afforded.”
Whenever Ortega had seizures at her new school, the nuns would tend to her.
“They set up a little cot in the back of the room,” she explained. “One of the nuns would be back there to nurse me if I went into a trance. They would give me my medicine and nurse me back to health.”
Ortega described the Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded in Baltimore as the first religious community in the world for Black women, as gifted educators who knew many different languages and emphasized the great books. As a junior, Ortega spoke with one Oblate who encouraged her to contact Morgan State about pursuing higher education. She was accepted and received a scholarship.
Ortega, whose seizures eventually disappeared, recalled her mother singing with joy at the news of her daughter’s acceptance.
“Every Black parent valued education because that 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 “flight” that included 20 white women.
Among the indignities she faced was hearing white parents scream for their children to get out of the pool when she approached on a hot day. She was never asked to dance when attending 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 hosted at the colleague’s home.
On the day of the party, all the other members left her standing behind as they boarded a bus to go to the celebration.
“It was one of the best lessons I’ve learned about cruelty and the importance of omission,” Ortega said.
Ortega’s classmate was on her same level in the military, she said, but in the moment she rejected Ortega, she was exercising power.
“She became master and I became slave,” Ortega said. “She was superior and I was inferior. And this is how one can be made to feel. Anything like this still bothers me today.”
At her first assignment at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, Ortega quickly realized her superiors did not initially intend to use her for any work of significance. To make a difference, she took on tasks on her own initiative, such as reorganizing medical records that were in disarray and documenting the history of the hospital on the base.
In Utah, Ortega met her husband, Julio W. Ortega. The couple married more than six decades ago at St. Gregory in Baltimore and had three daughters.
Looking back on her career, Ortega said she has been blessed time and time again. She credits her military experiences — both good and bad — with reinforcing her strong sense of right and wrong and her commitment to justice.
“Because of the military, I own myself,” she said. “It enabled me to empower myself to be — hopefully — a better person. Nobody owns me. I won’t allow it.”
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Matysek is managing editor of the Catholic Review, news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.