Generally, the concept of women in uniform was difficult for the American society of the 1940s to accept. In fact, American women were only allowed to serve in the U.S. Army during the First World War. Many of them were nurses and staff who cooked and took care of injured soldiers, having joined in a non-combatant role but with the same rank and status as men.
These were largely White women as at the time slavery and racism prevented Black women from giving their services to America. But with the need for more personnel in case of emergency, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was formed in May 1942, and women of all races were allowed to serve in the war officially after bodies including the NAACP had argued for integrating the military for years.
One of the women with WAAC was Anna Mac Clarke. She would become the first Black WAAC to command an all-white unit and could have done more in changing the course of history for Black soldiers had her life not been tragically cut short.
Born in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, on June 20, 1919, her mother, Nora Mitchel, was a cook, and her father, Tom Clark, was a laborer. Her parents never married and Clarke and her three siblings were brought up by their grandmother after their mother died.
Clarke graduated from Lawrenceburg High School in 1937 and went on to Kentucky State College (now Kentucky State University) graduating in 1941 with degrees in sociology and economics. She was active during her time in college, engaging in sports while joining a sorority and working on the school newspaper. She even had to work in the Dean of Women’s office and be an assistant to one of the dorm housemothers to enable her to make it through school.
And after college, she struggled to find a job with her degree. Most businesses did not allow Black women so she was forced to take on “low-paying” jobs. But she knew she could do more so during World War II, she enlisted in the WAAC in 1942. The WAAC became the Women’s Army Corps in 1943.
It was at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, that Clarke’s training began. After completing her basic training, she entered the WAAC Officer Candidate School, where she became the only Black woman officer to graduate. At the time Clarke graduated from Officer Candidate School, Fort Des Moines was still a segregated base. Clarke and other Black officers lived on officers row but they were not allowed access to the officers club and the swimming pool except for one hour on Friday evenings just before the pool was cleaned, according to tucson.com.
In February 1943, Clarke became a platoon leader, the first Black WAAC to command an all-white unit. That year, she served on several posts around the country but came back to Fort Des Moines when the WAAC became the WAC in September 1943. She received a commission as first lieutenant and by January the following year, she was in California preparing a Black WAC unit for detail to Arizona’s Douglas Army Air Field which had been established in 1942.
Arriving at the airfield in February, Clarke and her unit of Women’s Army Corps recruits performed several duties including aircraft maintenance. There was a movie theater at the base for soldiers but it came with segregated seating. Black soldiers were to sit at the “Negro corner” of the theater. Clarke made history again when she led some WACs to protest against segregated seating in the base theater, arguing that they had the same privileges as any other military person no matter their skin color.
When the commanding officer of Douglas Army Air Field, Colonel Harvey Dyer, heard about the protest at the theater, he released a statement on February 21, 1944, saying that all military enlistees, irrespective of their race, “are entitled to all the courtesies and privileges extended to white officers and white enlisted men and women.”
Clarke made a national name for herself following the theater protest. She wanted to do more to end segregation and discriminatory practices in other military posts across the country but she fell ill just a month after her protest at the theater.
Clarke died of a ruptured appendix at the base hospital on April 19, 1944. She was only 24. Her body was sent back to Kentucky, where she was buried in Woodlawn Hills Cemetery. Today, Clarke is remembered with a historical marker at the County Courthouse in Lawrenceburg that lists her various achievements.