Anna Mac Clarke
Anna Mac Clarke (June 20, 1919 – April 19, 1944) from Kentucky joined the Women's Army Corps of the US Army in 1942. She became the first African American women to be a commanding officer of an otherwise all White regiment, so broke not only gender barriers and conquered race barriers when the United States military was still segregated.
Anna Mac Clarke was born Anna Mack Mitchel less than 30 miles west of Lexington, Kentucky in a small town called Lawrenceburg. Anna Mac Clarke’s mother, Nora Mitchel, was a cook in Lawrenceburg, and her father Tom Clark, was a laboror from Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Since her parents never married, Anna Mack Mitchel would come be known as Anna Mac Clarke after dropping the “k” from Mack, and adding an “e” to the end of her father’s last name.
Anna Mac Clarke’s mother Nora had three more children, two boys and one girl. Franklin, Lucien, and Evelyn were Anna Mac Clarke’s half-siblings, as they only shared the same mother. When Nora died of edema, the four children were raised by their grandmother, Lucy Medley, at 324 Lincoln Street in Lawrenceburg. While living with her grandmother, Anna Mac Clarke learned the importance of education, gaining extra knowledge and education after 15 years of attending regular and Sunday school at Evergreen Baptist Church located on College Street in Lawrenceburg. Anna Mac, as she was known to be referred as, was always known by her neighborhood friends as a “tomboy” who liked to play football and take care of animals, specifically cats and her pet chameleon. While growing up in her small town community, Clarke’s peers and elders knew that she was destined to do something great.
On May 28, 1937, less than one month before her 18th birthday, Clarke was awarded a diploma from Lawrenceburg High School, which at the time was referred to as the “Colored High School.” After graduating from high school, Anna Mac decided to pursue a college education. She considered many options, but in the end decided to attend Kentucky State College (now KSU), an historically Black college located in Frankfort, Kentucky which is less than 15 miles from where she grew up in Lawrenceburg. While at Kentucky State, Clarke was a very active student, participating in sports, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and the school's newspaper, The Kentucky Thorobred. Clarke graduated from Kentucky State College in 1941, earning a Bachelor’s degree in both sociology and economics. However, Anna Mac had a hard time finding employment that was appropriate for her skills and was not extremely low paying.
World War II
The United States was brought into World War II on December 7, 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. When this tragedy happened, Clarke saw an opportunity to not only serve her country, but also as a chance to earn a good living thanks to her recently acquired college degree. Mary McLeod Bethune, founding member of the National Council of Negro Women and who had given the convocation speech at Clarke’s graduation from KSU, was instrumental in forming and recruiting for the All-Volunteer Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). On May 14, 1942, Congress passed legislation establishing the WAAC, and in two months 440 recruits – 40 of them African American—reported to Fort Des Moines, Iowa for basic training. Bethune, a member of the National Civilian Advisory Committee, also assisted with the selection of officer candidates for the WAAC OCS Program.
In 1942 Clarke trained with the United States Army Fifth Service Command’s Signal Corps School in Cincinnati, Ohio. After receiving her training, Anna Mac officially joined the WAAC in Cincinnati on October 3. She went by train to the First Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps Training Center at Fort Des Moines, Iowa – the largest WAAC training center for African-Americans. The WAAC Basic and Officer Candidate course were identical to the corresponding courses for men, though women were not expected to study combat subjects and they took a course on women’s hygiene. The women studied military sanitation and first aid, military customs and courtesy, map reading, defense against chemical attack, defense against air attack, interior guard, company administration, supply, and management of food. Clarke completed her four-week Basic Training course just prior to Christmas 1942.
On November 30, 1942, the Officer Candidate School at Fort Des Moines in Iowa –where Clarke was stationed—was desegregated. Within two weeks of the desegregation, Clarke became a candidate in the 15th Officer Class, WAAC OCS Program. There were two other African Americans in her class, but she would be the only one to finish the course eight weeks later on February 16, 1943. By the end of February, Clarke was reassigned to the Fourth Company, Third Regiment, as a Platoon Leader. Third Officer Anna Mac Clarke was the first African-American WAAC assigned to command what was otherwise an all-White unit.
With First Officer Sara E. Murphy, Clarke led a unit of 144 African-American WAACs to serve in Wakeman General Hospital at Camp Atterbury in Indiana. This assignment lasted for only a month, and in June 1943, Clarke worked in the Classification and Assignment Department of WAAC headquarters in Washington, D.C. She enrolled in the Adjutant General’s School at Campe Meade, Maryland, and after having completed the training she was assigned to Chicago’s WAAC recruiting program. Clarke was promoted to Second Officer on July 16, 1943, and she returned to Fort Des Moines. The Army transformed the auxiliary units of WAAC into the Regular Army, and Clarke became a member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in September 1943.
On February 7, 1944, Clarke led the first WAC unit onto the base at Douglas Army Air Field. Located in eastern Arizona, this Army Air Field was one of only four in the U.S. to have both African-American soldiers and WACs. The theater on the post was segregated, and Clarke had been warned by the African-American soldiers not to go. However, Clarke and several women went to the theater, refusing to sit in the Colored section. She protested the enforced segregation to the theater management, her immediate supervisor and then the Commanding Officer, Colonel Harvey E. Dyer. On February 21, 1944, Colonel Dyer issued the order to his officers “to educate properly all enlisted and civilian personnel in your respective departments to accept any colored WACs assigned as you would any white enlisted man or enlisted woman in the Army of the United States. Every consideration, respect, courtesy and toleration will be afforded every colored WAC. No discrimination will be condoned.”
Life Cut Short
Anna Mac Clarke would not get to serve for long. In March 1944 Anna Mac was admitted to a hospital on the base with sharp pains in her side. Doctors diagnosed her with appendicitis, and decided that she needed an appendectomy to save her life. At first it was believed to be a successful surgery and Clarke was expected to make a full recovery. Unfortunately, gangrene had entered her body due to the infection brought on by the surgery. Anna Mac Clarke died on April 19, 1944, at the age of 24.
Eventually over 150,000 American women served in the WAC during World War II, and were the first women other than nurses to serve within the U.S. Army. The highest rank any African American women attained during World War II was that of major, and only two attained that rank: Harriet West (of WAC Headquarters in Washington D.C.) and Charity Adams Earley (battalion commander of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion). Anna Mac Clarke served at a time when the discriminatory treatment of African-American male and females service personnel was a political hotspot. In 1943 three African-American WACs stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, had refused to move from the White area of a Greyhound bus station and were beaten by a mob. That same year in Alabama, a Black army nurse had been beaten by police and jailed for boarding a bus ahead of white passengers. Dovey Johnson Roundtree was in Miami in the winter of 1943, recruiting other African American women for the WAC, and was thrown off a bus for not giving up her seat to a White male Marine. Many Black leaders participated in a “Double V” campaign: advocating for victory at home against racial justice at the same time as victory in Europe against fascism. Not until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, was racial discrimination and segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces refuted from the top down. Nevertheless, Anna M. Clarke had taken a stand against segregation at Douglas Army Air Field, and the commanding officer was strong enough to support her bold claim for equality and justice for all.
An historical marker honoring Anna Mac Clarke stands near the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky courthouse.
- Trowbridge, John M. Anna Mac Clarke, a Pioneer in Military Leadership. Kentucky African American Heritage Commission, 1996.
- Putney, Martha S. "Mary McLeod Bethune And The Women's Army Corps During World War II," Journal of The Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society 12 (Spring/Summer 1991), 80-87.
- Trowbridge, John M. “Anna Mac Clarke.: Answering the Call to Arms,” World War II and the WAC (1997). Accessed October 5, 2010. http://www.indianamilitary.org/WakemanHospital/Departments/Waacs.htm.
- “Anna Mac Clarke,” Great Black Kentuckians. Accessed October 5, 2010. http://kchr.ky.gov/about/gallergreatblack.htm?&pageOrder=1&selectedPic=23
- Trowbridge, John M. “Anna Mac Clarke, Answering the Call to Arms,” World War II and the WAC. Accessed October 5, 2010. http://www.coax.net/people/lwf/AMC_WW2.HTM
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- ”Charity Adams Earley,” in African American Lives, Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 264.
- McCabe, Katie and Dovey Johnson Roundtree. Justice Older than the Law: the Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
- "African American Women in the Military and at War: A Selected Reading List," The Library of Congress. Accessed December 4, 2010. http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/SciRefGuides/africanamericanwomenwar.html
- Earley, Charity Adams. One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989.
- Meyer, Leisa D. Creating GI Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
- Moore, Brenda L. To Serve My Country, to Serve My Race: The Story of the Only African-American WACS Stationed Overseas During World War II. New York: New York Press, 1997.
- Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, Third Platoon, Company 1