During World War II, the USO Club in downtown Manchester, officially called the USO Club for Service Men, supported the soldiers and airmen stationed at Grenier Field. When the air base began operating in 1941, it was not anticipated that it would become home to a significant contingent of Black troops. When these servicemen began arriving in large numbers in 1942, the USO Club staff was committed to finding the means to provide them with recreational and social programs for their off-duty hours.
To be able to assist the Black troops, the USO had to operate within strict social boundaries. The U.S. Army was segregated, and racist attitudes persisted among some of the White soldiers even when they were away from base, especially for the men from the South. It was understood that integrating the USO Club’s existing activities, especially in a city with a predominantly White population, would not have been possible.
In the fall of 1942, the USO Club held dances every other Saturday night for the Black soldiers. These were quite popular, despite the fact that there were too few Black hostesses available compared to the number of men attending. The dances were a good start, but the USO, and ultimately the U.S. Army, needed to do more to provide off-duty activities for the Black troops. The decision by the base command, working in consultation with Manchester civic leaders, was that a USO operation for Black troops should be established at Grenier Field. It was also agreed that a Black woman should be hired to run the operation, and that she be a member of the USO Club’s staff of 3-4 people. It was believed that this would be the first time that a local USO operation would have an interracial staff.
On Dec. 30, 1942, the director of the USO Club, Gerald D. Chesley, received a letter from the organization’s regional leadership indicating that he now had permission to proceed with this plan. A paragraph in the letter reminded him of the unusual nature of the arrangement, “It should be pointed out that it is not customary for USO to work and conduct activities on the posts, at camps, at stations and on board ships. In this case, however, if it is the judgment of the Grenier Field military officials that we should do so, we have permission from Headquarters for this type of activity.” The USO operation at Grenier Field would be overseen by the base’s Special Services officer, or “morale officer.”
The base command designated an old house on Grenier Field property to serve as the headquarters for the new operation. It was repaired, furnished, and maintained at government expense. It would be known as the USO Hostess House, or more commonly as the Guest House. According to a USO report from 1946, “The Guest House was once an old farmhouse, typical of the New England tradition. One of its most important assets is its structure, there is nothing to remind the men of the G.I. atmosphere of the barracks. It is furnished like a real home and offers every inducement for comfortable relaxation.”
In early January 1943 Margaret Dallas, a young Black woman from Salt Lake City, Utah, was hired as the on-base USO hostess. She was an experienced social worker who had earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. Miss Dallas attended staff meetings at the downtown USO Club and reported to its director, but she spent most of her time at the base, where she worked closely with Special Services.
Miss Dallas organized an open house at the Guest House on Sunday, Feb. 7, 1943. This was attended by men from the 37th Aviation Squadron, a Black unit stationed at the base, and their guests. Also, a group of Black junior hostesses came up from Boston. The members of the local USO Women’s Advisory Board provided refreshments and served as official hostesses. The integrated crowd of over 200 people included other guests from Manchester who were pleased to share in the hospitality.
The USO for Black soldiers at Grenier Field was assigned the use of a recreation building on the base, which would double as a dance hall.