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Lillian Fishburne is the Navy's First Black Female Rear Admiral

Rear Adm. Lillian Fishburne

Lillian E. Fishburne is the Navy's first black female rear admiral. 

In 1998, Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen delivered this quote during a ceremony honoring her as a military pioneer. He was quoting author and retired Air Force Maj. Albert Murray.

"Heroism ... is measured in terms of the stress and strain it can endure, and the magnitude and complexity of the obstacles that it overcomes ... which bring out the best in [potential heroes]." 

Observing the established valor of black service members, Cohen stated: "Considering the stresses and strains endured by African-Americans in defense of our country, it's little wonder that we have so many heroes among us.” 

Fishburne, the first black woman to rise to a flag rank in the United States Navy, "is a woman whose story helps us to understand the truth that women are an indispensable part of today's military," Cohen said.

Born into a Navy Legacy Family

Fishburne’s legacy seemed sealed by being born into a naval family at Patuxent River in Maryland. Her father, an active duty Navy man, never doubted his daughter's career vision and military ambitions because of her gender.

His love and unwavering faith were confirmed when Fishburne graduated from Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, in 1971. Not even two years had passed before Fishburne completed Women Officers School training at Newport, Rhode Island. In 1973, she received an ensign commission.

Military Service 

Fishburne wasted no time establishing momentum in the Navy. Her first role was personnel and legal officer at the Lakehurst, New Jersey, Naval Air Test Facility. Early evidence of a talent for leadership and an unwillingness to rest on her laurels ensured her swift climb in the naval ranks.

After a recruiting tour in Miami, Florida, and serving as the Officer in Charge of the Naval Telecommunications Center in Great Lakes, Illinois, she attended the Naval Postgraduate School. Following school, she stepped into the role of assistant head in the Joint Allied Command and Control Matters Branch.

On Feb. 1, 1998, Fishburne became the first black female to hold the rank of rear admiral, when President Bill Clinton promoted her.

Her promotion came on the heels of helming the Pentagon’s Command and Control Systems Support Division and commanding the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station, Eastern Pacific, in Hawaii.

"Highly decorated" is used as a term for those who do not hesitate to trade their lives for our freedom. Rear Adm. Lillian Fishburne embodies this. Her list of awards include:

  • Two Navy Commendation Medals
  • Navy Achievement Medal
  • Meritorious Service Medal
  • Defense Superior Service Medal

Fishburne retired in 2001 after her tenure in Washington, D.C., as director of the Information Transfer Division. She has a daughter, Cherese, with her husband, Albert J. Sullivan.

Rear Adm. Lillian E. Fishburne stands with countless other female warriors and hidden figures in our armed forces who could not have known what their strides would mean for the American military and generations of girls and women after them. Perseverance often comes at a price. Hidden figures pay the toll for us all with their sacrifice, tenacity, and unwavering hope for the future.

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