If only we could bottle it.
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.
Clara's parents believed in education as well as hard work. And though she missed a lot of school due to farm work, Clara skipped two grades and graduated at sixteen, salutatorian of her class.
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.
"Many members of the African-American community considered dark skin ugly. Unattractive. Undesirable. That message came across loud and clear in terms of which students were favored by teachers, and by other students," Clara says. "When I raised my hand, the teacher would never call on me."
"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:
"I spent a lot of time getting even smarter, because I knew knowledge could never be snatched from me, regardless of whether I was high yellow or black as midnight," says Clara. Those early snubs and slights I experienced due to skin color further motivated me to excel. They lit a fire under me that drove me to succeed not just at academics, but at whatever endeavor I tackled."
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."
In 1965, Clara became a medical-surgical nursing instructor at Fort Sam Houston where she became the first woman in the army to earn the Expert Field Medical Badge. She continued to rise in the ranks and continue her education, the first nurse corps officer to graduate from the Army War College and the first woman to earn a Master’s Degree in military arts and sciences from the Army’s Command and General Staff College.
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.
The list of Clara Leach Adams-Enders' accomplishments in the army is long and impressive, including formal distinctions like the Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and informal such as recruiting minority student nurses at Walter Reed.
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.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known stories of history. Stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
I also post here about my books and feature other authors and their books on compelling and important historical topics.
Occasionally, I share what makes me happy, pictures of my garden, recipes I've made, events I've attended, people I've met. I'm always happy to hear from readers, in the blog comments, by email or social media.