Gilcrease Museum is temporarily closed for construction.

Get the Full Story
Date posted:  December 7, 2022

Lieutenant Colonel Major Clark (1917-1999), a veteran in the U.S. Army, is an important part of the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre collection. Specifically, his oral history interview with Mrs. Gates helps inform our understanding of Buffalo Soldiers and the role of Black soldiers in every war. However, before Lt. Col. Major Clark became a decorated soldier who helped dismantle concrete ceilings for Black soldiers, he lived a normal childhood in Headland, Alabama and eventually Haskell, Oklahoma.

Lt. Col. Major Clark was born in Headland, Alabama to Marcus Elijah and Elizabeth Bailey Clark. Though his father was allotted land, he eventually sold it due to the financial hardship the family faced. Additionally, the Clarks, along with many like-minded Black families, were eager to leave the Jim Crow South due to the rise of domestic terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Marcus Clark heard stories of an all-Black state that described Oklahoma territory as a “land of opportunity” for Black Americans, so he eagerly packed his family up and settled in Taft, one of the many all-Black towns in Oklahoma. But, when Oklahoma entered statehood in 1907, the new state’s first law was that of segregation, requiring “separate coaches or compartments” on trains and streetcars, and “separate waiting rooms” at stations for Whites and Blacks. So for Black citizens like Mr. Clark and his family, their hope for a Promised Land was quickly squelched.

Though the Clark family initially moved to Taft, they eventually relocated to Haskell, Oklahoma. In Haskell, Major Clark attended Booker T. Washington High school where he graduated as a valedictorian at 16 ½ years old. There were not many job opportunities in Haskell at the time and for Black people, the prospects were even more dire. Faced with being unable to feed his family, Marcus Clark and his son Major took an incredible risk. The father and son team crossed state lines, often walking, and at times hitchhiking, to work a variety of odd jobs. During that time, Lt. Col. Major Clark married Francis Doris Petree Clark, and they began a family of their own. Marcus and Major’s efforts to secure gainful employment often took them west to states like Arizona and California. Though sadly, tragedy struck on the road when Major’s father, Marcus, passed away. Marcus’s passing meant Major became the sole provider for his mother and siblings in addition to his growing family with Francis.

After some time on the road Major Clark eventually returned home to Haskell, where he worked a variety of odd jobs before securing employment with the Armory. At the Armory he observed daily military drills and land exercises which made Clark confident he could perform those same drills and routines. Inspired, Lt. Col. Major Clark enlisted in the United States Army, and in 1939 Clark was assigned to the 349th Field Artillery Unit in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. During this time, Clark and thousands of Black men around the United States enlisted in the military, eager to prove their patriotism and gain economic capital for themselves and their families. Black veterans had high hopes that in addition to their climb up the socioeconomic ladder, they’d also be regarded as human beings worthy of first-class citizenship. Their hope was by doing so, the United States would no longer treat Blacks as second-class citizens.

However, despite how valiant these Black soldiers were, they soon found that Jim Crow racism followed them overseas as the U.S. military was deeply entrenched in segregation. Most Black soldiers were relegated to secondary roles in the military such as cooking or cleaning. Despite this, Clark served on the frontlines in Europe during World War II–which was officially declared on September 1, 1939. Lt. Col. Major Clark was a Buffalo Soldier, having served in the all-Black 92nd Division. But what made Clark’s service in the U.S. military most unique was his unit, the all-Black 597th unit. While most all-Black units were led by White officers, his unit was commanded by a Black officer named Colonel Wendell Derricks for the duration of World War II. For his service in World War II, Lt. Col. Clark earned a bronze star, although rightfully deserving a medal of honor. However, during this era in the military Black soldiers were not awarded the medal of honor; Clark would go on to challenge this for decades. Shockingly, in June 2015, of the 3,470 medal of honor recipients less than 100 recipients were Black.
In addition to his service on the front lines in Europe, Clark served as his troop’s historian. Armed with his own accounts of battles fought in the war, he also possessed the diary of Col. Derricks and records of other Black soldiers and officers. In fact, the Oklahoma Historical Society will be archiving his papers and his photos. After World War II Lt. Col. Major Clark continued working with the military in a leadership capacity at the Pentagon until he ultimately retired.

In his interview with Mrs. Gates, Clark went into detail about his experience as a Black man in the military during World War II. He spoke about the extreme heroism displayed by Black soldiers, and how their efforts often went unrecognized throughout narratives of major battles. Not only was a soldier’s race a determining factor for rank and awards, but entire Black units were omitted from military literature like pamphlets, documents, and other communication. Clark noted that heroic acts by Black soldiers were purposely left out of awards and military recognition, he even noticed entire battalions that were omitted from military recognition.
Lt. Col. Major Clark passed away in 1999, just two years after President Clinton awarded seven Black soldiers the medal of honor for the first time in history. One medal of honor recipient in 1997 was Reuben Rivers, an Oklahoma native who died in battle. Clark’s legacy is undeniable. He has taught us the value of correcting the wrongs of the past. His passion to bring the prestigious service of Black World War II veterans to light despite the racism from which it was buried, is a crucial piece of American history that all Americans benefit from.


Ashli Sims, “Tulsa Woman Keeps Soldier’s Legacy Alive,” News On 6, May 25, 2009. (accessed November 30, 2022).

Gates, Eddie Faye. They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1997. 

Gates, Eddie Faye. Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 2003.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, grant CAGML-247978-OMLS-20. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.