She grew up working in the tobacco fields of Wake County, North Carolina. Her parents had a large family, ten children, because sharecropping required many hands and all-consuming labor.
How did Clara Leach make the leap from the Jim Crow south to Brigadier General in the U.S. Army?
She wrote the story of her life after retirement to set the record straight. "I was increasingly encountering people who assumed that I was successful because I was born with a “silver spoon” in my mouth or I just “got lucky.”
At age five Clara cooked and tended younger siblings in a house with no electricity or running water, while her parents and older siblings grew and harvested tobacco for a white landowner.
Soon Clara graduated to field work. That included planting, hoeing, pulling weeds, walking the rows "topping" off the buds to stimulate growth, and picking worms off the leaves and squishing them.
"Growing tobacco...is a very difficult crop...labor intensive," Clara says. "So my father and mother had ten children, and we were all employed full time on that farm in tobacco."
Photo: The daughter of an African American sharecropper at work in a tobacco field in Wake County, North Carolina. Credit: Dorothea Lange, July 1939.
in the elixir for success:
Learn to work hard.
The painful experience of prejudice at her segregated school in Wake County launched the attitude that would carry Clara from the soil of North Carolina to the halls of the Pentagon.
"Instead, a kid with straight hair and fair skin always got picked. Some of them were really smart, but so was I. It was all part of a warped value system that some black people still embrace today-the closer you are to being white, the better off and more beautiful you are."
Clara's mother told her beauty was skin deep and that what others thought of her didn't matter. "It's what you think of yourself that matters," she said. It was a good lesson but it didn't take away the sting of being passed over.
Clara made a decision.
Elixir for success:
She went college at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to study nursing. There Clara took part in the the famous Greensboro sit-ins at the Woolworth's lunch counter.
She told an interviewer for the Women Veterans Historical Project about her experience with non-violent protest. "When people push you, spit on you, curse you and do those kinds of things, it’s very difficult not to raise your hand. But in reality, when you think about it, it’s quite a powerful thing to be able to sit and do nothing while people do that."
To fund her last two years of college, Clara signed up for the Army Student Nurse Program scholarship. After graduation in 1961. she entered the U.S. Army Nurse Corps as a 2nd Lieutenant.
Her values of hard work and a positive attitude continued to serve her well as she met obstacles as a woman and a black in the army.
"Obstacles are not really there to stop one’s progress. They are really opportunities for us to decide how we will overcome them to reach our goals. If we keep the goal in mind, then we can decide if we will go over, under, around or through the obstacle to accomplish it."
Assigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Clara trained a generation of nurses and then became the first African American to serve as vice president and chief of the department of nursing at the hospital. In 1987 she was promoted to Brigadier General and named Chief of the Army Nurse Corps and Chief of Army medical personnel.
She led the Army Nurse Corps through two major combat operations, Just Cause and Desert Shield/Storm. Clara is also known for her remarkable warmth and humility.
Retiring after a 34-year career in the army, she wrote a book about her life to inspire others, My Rise to the Stars: How a Sharecropper's Daughter Became an Army General. She also runs a management consulting firm Cape Incorporated with the mission of helping organizations manage their people with care and enthusiasm.
With hard work, education and the right attitude, Clara Leach Adams-Ender made the journey from sharecropper's daughter to the highest ranks of the U.S. Army. Her success also stands on the shoulders of those who trod this path before her. Thousands of African American women overcame obstacles to serve with distinction in the U.S. Army during WWII. Read their story in Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII.