Q&A with Rochelle Crump: Empowering Black women veterans since the 1970s

Rochelle Crump delivers opening remarks during the dedication of the Sgt. Simone A. Robinson Military Women Veteran’s Center in Chicago on Sep 7, 2019. (Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Distribution Service)

By Prerana Sannappanavar
Medill Reports

In the 1970s, Rochelle Crump, now 68, joined the U.S. Army, where she started her fight against systemic gender and racial discrimination. As a woman of color, she persevered as she struggled to get recognition for Black and women veterans. Today she is the founder and president of National Women Veterans United.

She has donned many caps throughout her career. Two decades ago, she became the first Black woman to assume the position of assistant director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs and simultaneously served as the chief of African American Services in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Crump served as the community liaison for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations from 1998 to 2003, and the list goes on. She has shattered the glass ceiling many times over with each of her accomplishments. Raised by a single mother, and being a single mom herself, Crump is the picture of strength and grit.

This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Could you speak a bit about your journey?

It is representative of a very strong women leadership contingent. I had a chance to have a voice. It was sad at some points. It was anger in some. It was very cohesive (as) I had a lot of people support me from every segment of society; they were white, Black, Polish, Hispanic and Latino. (It was) closeness with a lot of people toward the end because, I guess, going through discrimination (together), people started understanding people.

What was your experience as a woman and as a woman of color during your time in the military? Was the discrimination more about your gender identity or your racial identity?

It’s a little bit of both, but a lot of times, it’s been about being a Black woman. It’s entitlement. (People saying,) “You must have got it because you Black.” And it’s never about your skills or your leadership, how hard you work or the successes you’ve had behind you. I even had women discourage me and say, “You’re not gonna get that job, you know, they giving those jobs to men.” I wasn’t looking for them to be right. I was confident that my work spoke for itself as opposed to me thinking about the Blackness or the female part of it.

I was very vocal all along. I’m never going to sit in a meeting with people who are disrespectful. I call them sickly, because this (is) sickly, you know, to not like people because they’re of different color, different language, different background. That’s a sickness, and we should be past all that stuff in life.

Is gender and racial discrimination only at the systemic level, or is it at the social level as well?

(Many) Black women were coming to me, crying and telling me about how they had been mistreated, how they hadn’t received any promotions and things like that. And I said to them, “Well, what did you do about it?” Because if you’re not willing to fight for something that you’re entitled to, if you show people that you are powerless then that’s how they gonna treat you. You got to stand up and speak up. That’s what you have to do, especially when it is the right thing to do.

On a social level, I’ve been called the “N”-word a couple times. It made me angry. I retaliated by being aggressive and throwing hot coffee on the man that called me (that). When a girl called me “n—-”, we wound up having a fight. So a lot happened along the years, but I don’t take them as a method to hate others. I pray that people would have a mindset to know that we all, outside of these skins, have the same bones, the same blood.

How did the atmosphere change over time, especially as the Black movement got stronger?

Things haven’t changed much over the years. Discrimination is very much alive.

If there was one thing you would change about the U.S. military from a gender and race perspective, what would that be?

More women in leadership roles, (and) more mentoring from those who have served and learned from the military. We’re still faced with the exclusion of women and women of color. The rapes and sexual assaults of women in the military (as well). So, I think they have to do more along the lines of securing women, making sure that women are safe, and they can continue to have a career in the military at their liking.

Prerana Sannappanavar is a graduate student in the social justice specialization. Connect with Prerana on LinkedIn.