FORT KNOX, Ky. — General George S. Patton Museum has a big secret to tell.
Sitting among several priceless artifacts is an unobtrusive trove with no connection to Patton — a kind of time capsule very few have seen.
These historical artifacts, stored neatly in several unremarkable boxes, once belonged to just one person — an African American woman named Margaret “Ma” Collier. The boxes are filled with personal memories, accomplishments and tremendous praise for her efforts, sometimes from unexpected people.
Among her accolades are signed press pictures of famous Black entertainers like Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, boxing legend Joe Lewis, and jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Lena Horne: even a signed press picture by Ray Charles; all extraordinary people she was responsible for headlining at the post.
One box, however, contains something even more extraordinary — her personal thoughts in the form of an unpublished biography and a separate article titled “Story of Integration,” which reveals the racial climate at Fort Knox during and after World War II from the eyes of a Black woman.
“Throughout my years since my arrival here, all the liberal policies which have been instituted here have been placed in effect without publicity, fanfare or force from outside,” wrote Collier. “They were instituted merely because the soldiers themselves had shown that they were ready to accept each other at face value and that each had a definite role to play in the defense of this great country and the work toward our ultimate aim — a democratic form of government.”
Considered by historians to be the first Black woman in the United States to work as a hostess in military service clubs, she is also said to have accomplished far more in her 35-year career at Fort Knox than just serving food and drinks to Soldiers.
If news coverage is any indication of the impact left on a community, Collier ranks among the most influential. Her retirement from club services in December 1976 drew several news organizations from Louisville and other parts of Kentucky.
“More than a service club hostess.”
According to Collier’s own writings and notes, she started work as a service club hostess at the central Kentucky installation in 1942, hired “to keep the morale of the men high … and to keep [the commander] well informed of any problems which might arise among [Black] personnel.”
That commander, then Commanding General of Fort Knox Maj. Gen. Jacob Devers, grew to trust Collier so much that they developed a close friendship, which would continue throughout the course of their lives long after the military.
“In this collection, you’ll see Christmas cards from Jacob Devers to Ma Collier, even 30 years after the war,” said Matthew Rector, historic preservation specialist at the Fort Knox Cultural Resources Office.
Rector admits he is one of Collier’s biggest fans, crediting her with helping Devers transform the Army post into a leader in racial integration.
“She was a very public face at Fort Knox for Soldiers who were stationed here, or passing through, regardless of their race,” said Rector. “I’m sure she remained active in the community well beyond her retirement in the mid-70s. That’s a 50-year chunk of contributions to Fort Knox and the surrounding communities.”
Rector is convinced that even Collier’s biography, written in the third person, is actually an autobiography after having rummaged through several of her logbooks filled with handwritten personal thoughts on several subjects.
A military brat.
Collier was no stranger to military life when she arrived at Fort Knox. In fact, she was born and grew up in it in her hometown of Oswego, New York, the daughter of a first sergeant. William Collier had been a combat veteran assigned to 24th Infantry at nearby Fort Ontario.
“Margaret’s earliest memories of her father reflect the essence of a man whose life was built around the strict code of a professional soldier,” according to Collier’s biography. Collier mentioned that she grew up basically in a colorless environment until her father retired from the Army and moved the family to Columbus, Georgia; just outside of Fort Benning.
“’I never really realized I was black until we moved South,’ Margaret said,” according to the biography. “’In Oswego, I cannot recall having heard [the N-word]. Mother and Grandmother had both been born in the North. I had no way of knowing what to expect when we moved.’”
It was during that time, she wrote, when she learned firsthand about the hateful culture of segregation. This backdrop became a reminder and a point of reflection years later when she explained to others the unique position Fort Knox held for her.
“From time to time, new steps were instituted toward a complete realization of our ultimate goal: recreational facilities were integrated, schools were non-segregated and battalions were filled with a complement of Negro personnel,” wrote Collier.
Devers and other leaders made her an integral part of the integration plan. According to Collier, one of her jobs was to orient incoming Soldiers “into Army life as would be experienced here at Fort Knox.” She had already been doing this for Black Soldiers who arrived, including the 200 or more at the installation when she had arrived.
She later wrote that Fort Knox was the ideal spot for integration to take place: “Fort Knox has always been blessed with having liberal-minded people in command.”
Rector said she didn’t judge people by their race or skin tone but would go out of her way to help others.
“She came across as a very friendly person, and genuine,” said Rector. “She cared for people, cared for their well-being. She recognized problems with incoming Soldiers and could identify when Soldiers needed help in certain areas.
Her own words reflect this in the biography.
“A lot of times we look at those in uniform at Fort Knox as being heroic, and those who don’t wear the uniform can get overshadowed because they’re here to support,” said Rector. “I know I’m not the only one enamored by Ma Collier, but I think she’s amazing. She left her life’s work here.”
Collier never married. She never had children of her own nor any known family members in the area. By her own admission, her family members were the Soldiers at Fort Knox, whom she often referred to simply as “my boys.”
That love seemed to last well beyond her service club days. Rector said at one point she was offered a very good job with a sizable bump in pay somewhere else, but she turned it down to stay in the area. Even after her celebrated retirement, she stayed.
She remains here to this day, buried at St. Patrick’s Cemetery across from the Main Post Cemetery — near many of her boys.