During World War II, two individuals became the driving force behind recruiting efforts to bring major black entertainers to Fort Knox; their efforts were some of the first in the U.S. Army at providing then-segregated black Soldiers the same entertainment opportunities as their white counterparts.
According to Matthew Rector, Fort Knox’s historic preservation specialist, famous black performers like Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, the (Nat) King Cole Trio, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Cab Calloway as well as athletes like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis performed at Fort Knox during the war and long afterward.
“Their popularity crossed racial lines,” Rector said. “These stars were brought in to support the morale of black Soldiers, but their talent was something that white audiences could appreciate as well.”
Rector said the talent showcase was supported by an unlikely partnership between Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers – the white commander of Fort Knox – and Margaret “Ma” Collier – a black woman working for the Army Hostess and Librarian Service as the head hostess at Service Club 4.
Black performers were able to use entertainment as a platform from which to speak about race issues, said Rector. He shared how Lena Horne once spoke up for black Soldiers at another location during World War II who, after having fought for their country, were demeaned.
“Lena Horne performed with the USO and refused to perform for segregated audiences. In at least one performance, she noted that German prisoners of war were seated in front of African-American servicemen,” said Rector. “In response to the inequality, she left the stage and walked beyond the seated POWs to perform at the first row where the black Soldiers sat.”
Devers had already earned a reputation for his favorable treatment of black Soldiers in allowing black officer candidates to train alongside white counterparts in Officer Candidate School at Fort Knox before integration. He was also responsible for the naming of Brooks Parade Field even after others complained after discovering Brooks, who had been declared the first U.S. Armored Forces casualty of WWII, was a actually a black man, who many assumed to be white.
According to military historian Dr. Scott Wheeler, author of Jacob L. Devers: A General’s Life, Devers attended “an integrated high school which was pretty unusual in 1905, and this may have helped with the challenges of integration in the United States Army.”
What is clear is that Devers threw the full weight of his support into much of what Collier wished to do for the black Soldiers at Godman Army Airfield and Fort Knox, said Rector.
Collier would eventually work with other notable commanders who fully supported her efforts. After President Harry Truman integrated the Armed Services in 1948, she began to advocate for all Fort Knox Soldiers regardless of race.
According to an article by Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper, Collier set up schools to teach Soldiers basic reading and writing, and to prepare them for life in the Army.
“I will never forget how amazed I was when about 40 [black recruits] got off the train and didn’t even have shoes,” She said in the article. “They’d always been out in the fields. I also saw whites, many from the hills, that didn’t have shoes and couldn’t write. All my life and my work, I’ve seen both sides as they were.”
According to Rector, Collier was offered a position as a liaison for the Department of the Army in Washington D.C., but turned down the opportunity because she felt the Fort Knox community needed her more.
Collier’s work would eventually reached beyond the limits of Fort Knox into the surrounding communities, and multiple newspaper clippings addressed her as “Mom” or “Ma” as did most everyone else who knew her.
“She is credited for her work in helping to integrate the USO Club in Louisville, an act in which she was [given] the key to the city in 1949,” Rector said, “and she spearheaded Operation Good Neighbor, a program dedicated to helping disadvantaged youth in the communities surrounding the Army post, providing them with food, clothing and shelter.
“She was instrumental in the morale and welfare of African-American Soldiers at Fort Knox during the period of segregation of the armed forces, and continued those efforts to all Soldiers when the Army integrated,” Rector added. “Her continued correspondence with [former] commanders, notably with General Devers throughout the years, demonstrates the high regard they held her in.”
Collier received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award at her retirement in 1976, and following her death in 1991 at the age of 81, she was buried in Fort Knox’s St. Patrick Cemetery.
“While she was important to the community here, this community was also very important to her,” said Rector. “She passed up other opportunities to remain here.”
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