Black Wives, White Maids: Social Implications of Black Military Wives in US-Occupied Germany


by Felicitas R. Jaima

In June 1957, the Minister President of Bavaria wrote a letter to Lt. General Clarke of the Seventh Army in which he asks “if US forces would consider it possible to send only married colored soldiers to the Federal Republic.”(1) A summary of the Civil Affairs Division of the US Military explains that this letter was motivated by “incidents between Germans and members of the US Forces in Bavaria” that often involved black soldiers.(2) The activities report further reveals that the Civil Affairs Division “recommended to the Commander in Chief that no reply be made to [the Minister President of Bavaria] from this headquarters and that the problem of the assignment of colored personnel in US Army units stationed in Bavaria be carefully explained to the Minister President by [the] Land Relations Officer, Bavaria.”(3)

Historian Donna Alvah has identified military dependents overseas as “unofficial ambassadors” of democracy whose mission it was to model American values while bringing normalcy to military communities abroad.(4) The Chicago Defender poignantly summarizes their role as “showing the way back to good, old familiar things like Sunday picnics, a day on the beach, an evening before the fire – the things that wives have always stood for to military men for ages past.”(5) The letter cited above, however, suggests that the role of black dependents was even more complex. Interracial relationships between black GIs and German women not only offended many conservative Germans but also provoked white American soldiers in Germany, often resulting in racial clashes.(6) The black military wife, many hoped, would disrupt the increasing numbers of these relationships. Ironically, this article argues, while black women were sent abroad for the purpose of decreasing racial tensions, in the process they inadvertently challenged racial norms. As they developed close friendships with their white German maids, African American military women turned race relations on their head.(7)

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From the late 1940s onward, military wives traveled to Germany in increasing numbers. The New York Amsterdam News reported in 1951 that “more than 1,000 American women and children” had just arrived in Bremerhaven by sea and that “the group included quite a number of Negro families.”(8) Many of the women, the article states, had not seen their husbands for more than a year, and some children had never even met their fathers. While awaiting their passage abroad, black American women were well aware of the appeal that white German women had on black GIs. Höhn has explored the inextricable link between black masculinity and democracy on one hand and American GI’s access to white women on the other.(9) Interracial relationships in occupied Germany clearly contributed to the soldiers’ “breath of freedom.”(10) African American women, in contrast, perceived of these relationships quite differently. In letters to the editor, they lamented that “the arrival of each new ‘war bride’ means ‘one less brown man’ in the marriage market,” and that “this vision of democracy ignored the aspirations for full citizenship of black women.”(11) Consequently, many women must have been quite eager to join their husbands abroad, arguably having their own agenda that was well aligned with the wishes of the Minister President of Bavaria.

Although marginalized in official records of the US military presence abroad, African American military women critically shaped the social landscape of postwar and Cold War Germany in many arenas. For instance, they drastically increased the points of contact between Germans and Americans. As families would mingle in churches, at sports events, and come together for other recreational activities, the attitude of Germans towards black soldiers improved: “For the first time the German people were able to meet Negroes as a part of the entire social scheme and not just as some members of an army far from their homes and constantly on the lookout for excitement – which usually meant girls.”(12)

The most intriguing encounter, however, took place in military homes. Given the American spending power in the 1950 and 1960s, many American families could afford to hire German women as maids.(13) One military study states that “the average American women coming to the community [in Germany] was overjoyed to hear she would have a maid.”(14) When considering the history of black female domestic labor in the United States, not to mention the racial status quo at that time, one can only imagine what a German maid meant for a black wife. This arrangement radically challenged American race relations and certainly created “breaths of freedom” for black women. And according to Ebony, German women also enjoyed their new employers:

Because of the economic situation, thousands of middle class German women, who never worked before the war, are now serving as domestics for Negroes. Strangely, many of these women – although they lived for years under Hitler – have asked to work in colored homes…many of them have just learned that Negroes are much more generous with food, cast-off clothing and other supplies than the white Americans.(15)

This arrangement facilitated one of the most influential German-American relationships: the friendship between African American military wives and their German maids. Given the naturally close contact between families and their domestic help, this relationship received a lot of attention in military circles as a central German-American encounter. According to one study of dependents in Germany between 1946 and 1951:

The relationship with German maids was the largest single avenue of social intercourse for Americans…In many instances German domestic help may have been the sole, and undoubtedly in the majority of cases was the most intimate source of American dependent contact with the German people…a contact experienced by the greatest percentage of American dependents.(16)

The study continues to emphasize the intimacy of the relationship between the maid and the family, explaining that there were cases in which the American family had “entertained the maid’s children as weekend guests, given the maid her wedding reception, or driven her long distances to meet her relatives.”(17) In addition, it explains that the American emphasis on individualism stood in stark contrast to German paternal authoritarianism. In this context, it stresses that “democratic treatment of the maid, sometimes as a companion, often as an equal invited to dine with the family, in effect challenges the traditional social caste system of the Germans.”(18) The maid, therefore, emerges as a key figure in the American occupation of Germany.

A case study of the Air Base of Fürstenfeldbruck further confirms the prevalence of this employment situation, particularly in the early years of the occupation. The study explains that “in order to keep requisitioned property in good condition, each dependent family at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base was assigned one maid.”(19) Consequently, 181 maids worked on this base as of February 1947.(20) While the study acknowledges that language barriers initially presented great obstacles to the family-maid relationship, it explains that due to the prolonged American presence and resulting German-American exchanges, Germans quickly grew accustomed to the second language in their environment.

Personal interviews with former military wives add important insider perspectives to these studies. When Perrie Haymon – an African American woman born in South Carolina – moved to West Germany in 1955, she left behind a society in which Jim Crow still defined the racial status quo. Living in a house on base, Haymon, like all wives of officers, enjoyed the service of a German maid. She recalls that she and her maid went on regular “day trips” downtown and that she learned a lot about German culture and customs from her maid.(21) Gloria Brown, born in New Jersey, came to Germany in 1966 as the wife of an Air Force Junior Officer. Stationed in Bitburg, she employed a young German girl to clean her apartment twice a month. Brown explains that “she even helped me with the language at times.”(22)

The interviews, however, also speak to complexities of this relationship that remain only suggestive in official sources.(23) A survey from the late 1940s reveals that out of 161 maids that were interviewed, 43 claimed that they dated American servicemen and that many desired to marry an American, if only as a “ticket to the United States.”(24) Among military wives, rumors about husbands’ affairs with maids circulated widely. Stories in the black American press further stoked this fear. One article, for instance, describes the experiences of a military wife from Chicago who followed her husband to Frankfurt only to discover that he had hired his three girlfriends as her maids.(25) Eloise P. Walters claimed that she had heard of several similar incidents. Consequently, hoping to not jeopardize her marriage, she confided to me that she hired an older, less attractive maid.(26)

At the same time, it is important to understand that black military wives also engaged in extra-marital affairs with German men. Jet claimed that some wives fell for “the charms of blond German men and unaccustomed leisure.”(27) And also the Afro-American reported that “colored army wives fall in love with them [broad-chested Teutonic Romeos] easily enough for the thrill of ‘getting something different’.”(28) Interracial relationships, therefore, appealed to both African American men and women.(29)

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As was predicted by the Minister President of Bavaria, African American military wives deescalated racial tensions resulting from liaisons between black GIs and German women. As a result of their presence, Ebony claimed in 1952, “German girls, who once found themselves at a premium when the war ended are now not nearly as popular with the Negro soldier.” And interestingly, this article demonstrates, black women’s efforts to re-claim black GIs as their lovers and partners converged with the German and American vision for restoring “racial order.”

But black women’s influence did not stop here. Once abroad, they actively participated in and shaped social life. And ultimately, through their relationships with German maids and German men, they broke down the very racial barriers that they were sent out to uphold.

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Felicitas R. Jaima received her Ph.D. in African Diaspora History from New York University with a second concentration in Colonial African History in 2016. She also holds an M.A. in African American History from Seton Hall University. Her research, firmly rooted in African Diaspora scholarship, brings together historical approaches to studying the black experience with Black European studies. As an associate scholar with “The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany,” Jaima has conducted over twenty interviews with former enlisted women and military spouses. Her current book project, Adopting Diaspora: African American Military Women in Cold War West Germany, uncovers the activism of black American military women in hitherto understudied areas of the US military presence abroad including the household, hair salons, and schools. African American military women, she argues, protested racial and gender inequalities in daily life and ultimately made critical contributions to the Civil Rights Movement back home, while at the same time creating a distinct vision of diaspora for Germany’s growing black population. The following article zooms in on the formative relationship that, facilitated by Cold War structures, developed between black military wives and their German maids.
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(1) Civil Affairs Division, Headquarters USAREUR, Activities Report, July 8, 1958, Folder “Civil Affairs Division, Activities Report, 1957-58,” Box 1041 (1957-58), RG 549 Records of the U.S. Army Europe, United States Army Europe, Records of the Civil Affairs Division, NARA.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Donna Alvah, Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946-1965 (New York: New York University Press, 2007).
(5) “Women ‘Take Over’ in Army Zones Abroad,” The Chicago Defender, April 17, 1948, 13.
(6) For a thorough analysis of these relationships and the resulting tensions among both the German community and the U.S. military community see Maria Höhn, GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina University Press, 2002).
(7) Black military wives, of course, also developed friendships and relationships with neighbors, colleagues, and other Germans, including Afro-Germans, but these interactions go beyond the scope of this article.
(8) Floyd Snelson, “Wives, Kids of GI’s Arrive in Germany,” New York Amsterdam News, December 1, 1951, 2M.
(9) Maria Höhn, “Love Across the Color Line: The Limits of German and American Democracy, 1945-1968,” in Larry A. Greene and Anke Ortlepp, eds., Germans and African Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), 107.
(10) Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke, A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).
(11) Höhn, “Love Across the Color Line,” 122 n.15.
(12) Negro Families Flock to Join Soldiers in Germany,” Ebony (January, 1952), 58.
(13) The going monthly rate of 50-70DM for a general housemaid who worked 60 hours a week and was provided meals and quarters was a bargain for many military families. See “Employment of Domestics in Germany,” Annex A, Folder 292 “Servants,” Box 653, RG 549, Records of the Special Staff, Office of the Adjutant General, Operations and Records Branch, General Correspondence 1949 and 1952-53, NARA.
(14) “History of the Fürstenfeldbruck Dependents’ Community,” 14, Box 4386, RG 0498, Headquarters, European Theaters of Operation, U.S. Army, Entry #UD834 “History of the Fürstenfeldbruck Dependents’ Community, Apr. 1946-March 1947,” NARA.
(15) “Negro Families Flock to Join Soldiers in Germany,” Ebony (January, 1952), 58-59.
(16) “Problems of USAFE Dependents, 1946-1951,” 231, 8-3.8 AA 8 – 8-3.8 AA 9, 1948, Historical Manuscript Collection, CMH.
(17) Ibid., 233.
(18) Ibid., 238.
(19) “History of the Fürstenfeldbruck Dependents’ Community,” 13, Box 4386, RG 0498, Headquarters, European Theaters of Operation, U.S. Army, Entry #UD834 “History of the Fürstenfeldbruck Dependents’ Community, Apr. 1946-March 1947,” NARA.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Perrie Haymon, Personal Interview, July 9, 2011.
(22) Gloria Brown, Personal Letter, April 21, 2011.
(23) In Adopting Diaspora, I explore at length the adoptions of German biracial children by African American military women. In this context, I also discuss the family-maid relationship and the ways in which it became surprisingly intricate when couples hired pregnant maids, mostly those who expected a child fathered by a black GI, only to adopt the child once it was born.
(24) “Problems of USAFE Dependents, 1946-1951,” 234, 8-3.8 AA 8 – 8-3.8 AA 9, 1948, Historical Manuscript Collection, CMH.
(25) Ibid.
(26) Eloise P. Walters, Personal Interview, July 9, 2011.
(27) “The Truth About Army Wives,” Jet, September 2, 1954, p.30.
(28) Golf Dornself, “Love Secrets of an Army Post…” Afro-American, April 18, 1953, A5.
(29) Considering the historical representation of the black male as hypersexual perpetrator mutilating the white woman, the relationships between black GIs and German women were perceived as much more threatening than those between black American women and German men. In addition, they also occurred in much greater numbers since many more GIs were stationed in Germany than black military women.
(30) “Frauleins Losing Appeal as Negro Women Join Mates,” Ebony (January, 1952), 60.