Mae Kemp, 1913. J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, Univ of Washington
The Hayward Unit of the National League for Women’s Service at 200 W. 139th St. in New York City opened a club for black soldiers and sailors in August 1918, providing a canteen, games and reading/writing rooms, accommodations, dances, and musical performances. The unit was named for Colonel William “Bill” Hayward, commander of the 369th Colored Regiment (aka the “Harlem Hellfighters“) that saw extensive combat in France and received the Croix de Guerre (Hayward’s son was Hollywood agent-producer Leland Hayward). What New York Did for Fighting Men states that between August 1918 and September 1919, the club entertained 40,000 men, with 5015 eating in the canteen, 11,527 using the dormitory facilities, and 6464 attending dances. Jobs were found for 883 discharged black servicemen.
Part of this unit was the “only colored women’s motor corps in the world,” according to a 1919 article by Frances Tilghman, NLWS publication secretary. Tilghman stated that the motor corps was composed of 40 women, three ambulances, two buses, and 12 cars. The women of the motor corps visited hospitalized African American service members and took convalescing black patients on outings such as sightseeing, ballgames, picnics, and carnivals. They also transported elderly people to church and orphans to amusement parks. Their service during the influenza epidemic was especially lauded.
Poster for the Hayward Unit. Univ of Minnesota Libraries
The motor corps was credited with greeting 100,000 men. Tilghman lists the following women as its leaders:
• Captain Sadie Leavelle
• Lt. Mae Kemp (c. 1877–1926): a vaudeville performer who later appeared in the film The Call of His People (1921), which focused on a man passing for white. Kemp was involved with fundraising for and purchasing an ambulance that was sent to France. After she became ill with cancer, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson organized a benefit performance for her.
• Sergeant Pearl Murray
• Sergeant Anna Reid
In addition, Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era states that Lelia Walker Robinson, the daughter of black millionaire Madam C. J. Walker, volunteered with the unit for formal events and parades for the troops.
Mae Kemp, far left, and Sadie Leavelle with black servicemen on a sightseeing outing. From the New York Age, 30 Aug 1919: 1.