On June 21, the Central Kentucky World War II Roundtable heard Kentucky Chautauqua performer Haley McCoy portray Lt. Anna Mac Clarke, a Kentucky native who was apioneer for African-American rights in the military.
Clarke was the first black Women’s Army Corps officer to command a white unit. Although her life was brief, Clarke’s actions for racial equality had an enduring impact on the military.
Anna Mac Clarke was born in Lawrenceburg and raised there by her maternal grandmother, Lucy Medley, who taught her to aim high.
In 1937, Clarke enrolled at Kentucky State College (now University) in Frankfort. For years later, Clarke graduated with a degree in sociology and economics. The commencement speaker was Dr. Mary McCloud Bethune who was another source of inspiration for Clarke.
Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women and Bethune-Cookman College, was then serving as director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. She told the graduates, “We must not fail America, and as Americans, we must insist that America not fail us.”
However, Anna Mac had a difficult time finding employment that was appropriate for her skills and was not extremely low paying.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bethune’s words came back to Clarke, and she decided to serve her country by enlisting in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, later called the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
She completed officer training at Ft. Des Moines, Iowa, in 1943, the only back officer in the class. When Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit, Clarke led a protest against the Army’s proposal to form an all-black WAC regiment. Although the proposal was dropped, segregation remained well-entrenched.
When Clarke arrived for duty at Douglas Army Airfield in Arizona, she made history by commanding an all-white unit. She then made national news by protesting against segregated seating in the Army base theater.
Clarke ignored the sign marked “Reserved for Negroes,” and was escorted out of the theater by military police. Following the protest, base commander Col. Harvey E. Dyer issued an order banning segregation on the base. Dyer wrote that “consideration, respect, and courtesy will be afforded every colored WAC,” and that “They are citizens of the United States and are proud to serve their country.”
Although historians do not know exactly what Clarke said to Dyer, some speculate that she may have argued that segregation undermined morale, not to mention her authority as an officer.
The cause of civil rights and racial equality suffered a huge setback when Clarke died in 1944 of gangrene after undergoing what at first appeared to be a successful appendectomy.
Only a few years after her 1948 protest, the military became one of the first major national institutions in to be desegregated. A historical marker honoring Clarke stands near the Anderson County courthouse in Lawrenceburg.
Dr. Paul Foote is an assistant
professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University.