In general, the concept of women in uniform was difficult for 1940s American society to accept. In fact, American women were only permitted to serve in the United States Army during World War I. Many of them were nurses and medical personnel who cooked and cared for injured soldiers after joining in a non-combatant capacity but with the same rank and status as men.
These were mostly White women because slavery and racism prevented Black women from serving America at the time. However, in response to the need for additional personnel in case of an emergency, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was formed in May 1942, and women of all races were officially allowed to serve in the war after bodies such as the NAACP had argued for integrating the military for years.
Anna Mac Clarke was one of the WAAC women. If her life had not been tragically cut short, she would have become the first Black WAAC to command an all-white unit and could have done more to change the course of history for Black soldiers.
Her mother, Nora Mitchel, was a cook, and her father, Tom Clark, was a laborer when she was born on June 20, 1919, in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Clarke’s parents never married, and after their mother died, Clarke and her three siblings were raised by their grandmother.
Clarke graduated from Lawrenceburg High School in 1937 and attended Kentucky State College (now Kentucky State University), where he earned degrees in sociology and economics in 1941. She was very active in college, participating in sports, joining a sorority, and working on the school newspaper. To make ends meet, she had to work in the Dean of Women’s office and as an assistant to one of the dorm housemothers.
She also struggled to find work with her degree after college. Because most businesses did not hire Black women, she was forced to take “low-paying” jobs. But, knowing she could do more during WWII, she enlisted in the WAAC in 1942. In 1943, the WAAC was renamed the Women’s Army Corps.
Clarke’s training began at Fort Des Moines in Iowa. She entered the WAAC Officer Candidate School after completing her basic training, becoming the only Black woman officer to graduate. Fort Des Moines was still a segregated base when Clarke graduated from Officer Candidate School. According to tucson.com, Clarke and other Black officers lived on officers row but were denied access to the officers club and swimming pool except for one hour on Friday evenings just before the pool was cleaned.
Clarke was the first Black WAAC to command an all-white platoon in February 1943. She served at several posts across the country that year, but returned to Fort Des Moines when the WAAC was renamed the WAC in September 1943. She was commissioned as a first lieutenant and was in California by January of the following year, preparing a Black WAC unit for a detail to Arizona’s Douglas Army Air Field, which had been established in 1942.
Clarke and her unit of Women’s Army Corps recruits arrived at the airfield in February and performed a variety of tasks, including aircraft maintenance. The base had a movie theater for soldiers, but it had segregated seating. Black soldiers were to sit in the theater’s “Negro corner.” Clarke made history again when she led a group of WACs in a protest against segregated seating in the base theater, claiming that they had the same rights as any other military member regardless of skin color.
Colonel Harvey Dyer, the commanding officer of Douglas Army Air Field, issued a statement on February 21, 1944, stating that all military enlistees, regardless of race, “are entitled to all the courtesies and privileges extended to white officers and white enlisted men and women.”
Clarke rose to national prominence as a result of the theater protest. She wanted to do more to end segregation and discrimination in other military bases across the country, but she became ill just a month after her theater protest.
Clarke died at the base hospital on April 19, 1944, of a ruptured appendix. She was only 24 years old. Her body was returned to Kentucky, where she was laid to rest in Woodlawn Hills Cemetery. Clarke is remembered today with a historical marker at the County Courthouse in Lawrenceburg that lists her many accomplishments.