A building that served as the Black Officers’ Club at Fort Leonard Wood in mid-Missouri recently was restored and renamed after Staff Sgt. Samuel Countee, who painted the building’s mural during the mid-1940s.
Building 2101, once slated for demolition, instead was restored, reported the Rolla Daily News:
Maj. Gen. Donna Martin, commanding general of the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood, cut the ribbon alongside other officials and special guests, including Countee’s niece and namesake, Sammie Witing-Ellis. […]
Witing-Ellis was instrumental to the identification of the mural more than 20 years ago when she found a matching piece in her uncle’s sketchbook.
She explained that Countee wrote narratives for most of his artwork, giving some insight as to why he depicted certain scenes. The mural in Countee Hall was a reflection of his observations and inner thoughts, she said.
“I think that it’s a wonderful preservation of something that encompassed his life and what he saw among his fellow Soldiers, who were here, far away from home, reminiscing (about) family but at the same time, knowing that if and when they came home, they could refer back to a peaceful time — a time of caring and sharing,” Witing-Ellis said.
The mural remains inside a protective glass case atop the original stone fireplace in the newly named Countee Hall.
Countee Hall is one of two Black Officers Clubs from World War II that still are standing. Base officials said the mural probably is the only surviving artwork from Countee’s time in the military.
Robert Stanton, a former director of the National Park Service, brought some historical perspective about the club:
He commented on the event’s significance and the Army’s past segregation, which ended July 1948 through executive order by President Harry Truman.
“The African-American Soldiers stationed here – they overcame some strong difficulties and yet they contributed to the freedom and the privileges that we enjoy today,” Stanton said. “That is really the ultimate lesson learned, that while we are confronted with some difficult periods in our history, individually (and) collectively, that if we have the will, we can overcome it.”
The club also would have been a respite for African-American soldiers not only on the base. Mid-Missouri, in general, was heavily segregated up until at least the late 1950s.
According to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation:
The Army originally considered removal of the mural and complete demolition of the building before the Section 106 process. The consulting parties were adamantly opposed to demolition, and the Army eventually decided to convert the building into classroom and meeting/social space, conserving the mural, and making needed repairs.
Countee, a Texas native, was an artist who contributed to the national New Negro Movement and was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. The Texas State Historical Association wrote this about the Fort Leonard Wood mural:
The painting portrayed a young African-American couple enjoying each other’s company while picnicking; the piece has been called a subliminal portrait of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. A celebration of black love and beauty, the painting also challenged the widely-held notion of white superiority and black inferiority.
Countee died in 1959 from complications of cancer.
Fort Leonard Wood, built in 1940, remains inextricably linked to Route 66. According to the “Route 66 Encyclopedia,” construction of the base resulted in changes to Route 66 in the region, including eliminating a bottleneck at the village of Devil’s Elbow and the construction of a four-lane bridge over the Big Piney River.
More than 3 million soldiers were trained at Fort Leonard Wood, and many used Route 66 to arrive at the base or go home to their families.
(Hat tip to Jax Welborn; images via Advisory Council on Historic Preservation)