Margaret Glenn Sales Semmes

Our latest alumni spotlight is Margaret Glenn Sales Semmes, who lived an extraordinary life as a musician, community activist and veteran in an era when Black women faced limited opportunities in the American military. 

Raised on Chicago’s South Side, Sales Semmes had a passion for music from early age and was a frequent organist at Cosmopolitan Community Church in the Washington Park neighborhood. With the ambition to become a concert pianist, she studied at Northwestern University before enlisting in the army in 1944, and she was so determined to serve her country that she convinced her grandmother to increase her age on the application.

“She always said, ‘To serve others is to serve oneself,’” says Semmes daughter and fellow Roosevelt alumna Carol Semmes. “She saw so many other women supporting the United States during the war, and she was committed enough that she suspended her studies.”

Semmes was assigned to the Women’s Army Corps’ 6888th Battalion, also known as the Six Triple Eight. The only WWII army unit comprised totally of women of color, the Six Triple Eight’s daunting assignment was to sort nearly 17 million pieces of backlogged mail to American and Allied soldiers throughout the European Theater. Stationed in Birmingham, England, the group endured routine air raids from German bombers and spoiled car packages that attracted rats, but they managed to complete their assignment in just three months when the army estimated it would take six.

Despite their success, the battalion faced extreme racism and sexism from supervising officers, were segregated from other units, and weren’t allowed to enter Red Cross clubs during leave. And while the unit members were given World War II Victory Medal in 1946, they did not receive comparable recognition from the U.S. military establishment as their white counterparts until President Joe Biden awarded the Six Triple Eight veterans and their families the Congressional Gold Medal in 2022. Although she and her fellow Six Triple Eight members were not properly recognized during her lifetime, Sales Semmes was proud of her military service, proudly displaying her medals and memorabilia in her home.

“It was an immense honor for my mother to be recognized along with those other incredibly courageous Black women,” says Carol. “She always spoke highly of her military experience despite all the racism and sexism she faced from that era, and it really spoke to how invested she was in serving her country despite so many forces not wanting her to.”

After being honorably discharged when the war ended, Semmes was able to tour postwar Europe (Switzerland was her favorite stop) and continue her music education at London’s Trinity College of Music (where she could play the college’s famous Hammond organ). She even developed a lifelong love of tea during her time in England.

After returning to the United States and starting a family, Semmes returned to school by earning a teaching degree in 1964 from Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University) and her master’s in elementary education from Roosevelt in 1975. A reading specialist at John Farren Elementary in Washington Park for 29 years, she also remained active at Cosmopolitan Community Church by utilizing her musical background. From playing the pipe organ during services to leading the choir and glee club, she was a beloved member of the congregation for decades. She also embodied Roosevelt’s commitment to mentorship and community activism by serving as a member of the Chicago Teacher Academy.