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The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany - A Digital Archive created by the GHI Washington, HCA Heidelberg, and Vassar College Oral Histories "));
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“I had lain on the beach many times, but never before with a white girl [...] No one stared as we lay on the beach together, our skins contrasting but our hearts beating identically and both with noses on the center of our faces.  Odd, it seemed to me, that here, in the land of hate, I should find this all-important phase of democracy.  And suddenly I felt bitter.“

William Gardner Smith about the experience of black GIs in Germany, from The Last of the Conquerors (1948)



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A Breath of Freedom
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Oral Histories

Directed by Maria Höhn (Marion Musser Lloyd '32 Professor in History and International Studies, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY), Martin Klimke (GHI Washington), and Maggi Morehouse
(JR Henderson Professor of Southern History, University of South Carolina, Aiken)

To preserve their experience for the historical record and future generations, our digital archive contains oral histories from African-American servicemen who were stationed in Germany and from German activists who collaborated with these soldiers to help them pursue their civil rights. This archive of oral histories will illustrate how the soldiers were impacted by their military service abroad, and how the creation of the worldwide U.S. military base system resulted in the expansion of the civil rights movement beyond the physical boundaries of the United States.

This important and unique collection of oral histories serves as an important primary research source for scholars and students, in the U.S. and abroad, who desire to learn more about the story of African-American GIs and the transnational implications of the African-American civil rights struggle.

For similar stories related to the contributions of African-American soldiers to the war effort, please also visit the Veterans History Project (Pioneers / The Next Generation).

Interview Transcripts:


Interview with Milton and Charlotte Johnson from Delanco, NJ

Milton Johnson, from Delanco, NJ, served as an American GI in Germany. While stationed in Germany, he met his wife, Charlotte, who is from Austria. They got married in Germany and had to marry four times for it to be legal.

Interview conducted by Maria Höhn and Merema Ahmed, September 4, 2010


Interview with Joe McPhee from Poughkeepsie, NY

“We have to remember to remember to remember: Don't forget that freedom is a work in progress.“

- Joe McPhee

Joe McPhee, a jazz musician from Poughkeepsie, NY, served as an American GI in Germany. In this interview he speaks of the discontinuity between fighting for people’s right in Europe and then coming home to America and being deprived of the same rights. After serving, Mr. McPhee was active with the African American students at Vassar College. Joe McPhee continues as a musician. For more, please visit his website.

Interview conducted by students of Professor Maria Höhn's American Culture Colloquium, September 7,  2010


Interview with Walter Patrice from Poughkeepsie, NY

Interview conducted by students of Professor Maria Höhn's American Culture Colloquium, April 2010


View Image Gallery
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Lecture given by Dr. Leon Bass at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie (NY)

September 30, 2009 - Mildred C. Thompson Lecture sponsored by the History Department
(as part of the conference "African American Civil Rights and Germany in the 20th Century")


Interview with Debra Tanner Abell
Conducted by Madeleine Joyce (Vassar College, October 2009)

Interview with Thomas P. Stoney

Thomas P. Stoney was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and today lives in Sierra Vista, Arizona. As a young boy he watched his neighbor go off to the Army during World War II. He remembered how impressed he was when his neighbor came home with starched khakis, and Tom thought life in the Army might be a good career choice for him. With his father dying young, and his brother dying as a prisoner of war in Korea, Tom was thrust into the Army to provide for himself and his family.

By the time he was sent to Korea, most of the Army was integrated, although that had not been his brother's experience. Later when Tom was assigned to service in Germany, he noted that the U.S. Armed Forces took their prejudices with them. He said life on the Army bases was segregated because the soldiers and their commanders preferred that arrangement.

By his second tour of duty in Germany, Tom noted that black soldiers were agitating for changes and that the Germans and Americans worked together to provide the most hospitable conditions he had ever seen. He comments in this video oral history excerpt that the military leadership took up the challenge of equality and managed to do a better job than the rest of society.

[Interview conducted by Maggi Morehouse, University of South Carolina, Aiken, 2009]


Experiencing Germany as an African American GI in the Late 1950s – Interview with Thomas Ward

Thomas Ward was born in 1940 and grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1957, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Ward had never traveled out of the South before and was shocked by the North and the lack of open segregation there. As one of the few black men in his company, he encountered racist superiors and peers in the U.S. Army.

After his arrival in Bamberg, Germany, in the late 1950s, Ward overheard the men in his company rave about the local nightclub, Club Cherie. As soon as he got there, however, Ward learned firsthand that he was not welcome in the white GI section of town where Club Cherie was located. He narrowly escaped an ensuing bar fight with the help of a waiter who directed him to Nuremberg Strasse in Bamberg, the street where African-American soldiers hung out.

[Interview conducted by Madeleine Joyce, Vassar College, 2009]

I didn't care whether their Daddy was the Head of the Ku Klux Klan– Interview with Felix Goodwin

Stationed in Germany in the aftermath of World War II, Felix Goodwin took an active part in the integration of the U.S. Army from 1948 on. In 1952 he helped integrate a mostly white Battalion serving as their First Lt. Commander.

In this interview Goodwin provides a cursory account of the challenges and difficulties associated with this task as well as his strategies for success, recalling that "I told them (the white Southern soldiers) I didn't care whether their daddy was the, the head of the Ku Klux Klan. I told those black fellas, 'I didn't care where you come from or how strong you thought you were an NAACP or anything else. We have an AMERICAN Company here in Germany and you are going to obey the Army regulations."
> more

“Integration by Five O’Clock” – Interview with Harold Montgomery

Harold “Monty” Montgomery was born in 1919 and grew up in Washington, DC. He enlisted in the Army in February 1941 and went to Fort Benning Officer Candidate School, where he experienced integrated military education. He served several years on various army bases in the United States and took over Company H of the famous 92nd Division, 366th Regiment, in 1944.

In 1952, by then an Assistant Chief of Staff, he witnessed the integration of his battalion stationed in Germany. Looking out from his staff office, he remembers, “all of a sudden […] you can see these helicopters coming in and landing just about every three minutes. And every one of them had black troops on it. They were bringing the black troops from […] all over Germany, to bring them in, integrating that division. That division was completely integrated by retreat which was five o’clock that day.”
(photo credit: Dr. Carolyn Johnston)

“No Time to Think about Civil Rights” - Interview with Spencer Moore

Spencer Moore was born in 1921 in Magnolia, New Jersey. Following a few years of service in the National Guard, he went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning in August 1942. Having finished three months of officer training in an integrated classroom, he was assigned to the all-black 92nd Division shortly after its inception. Moore, a Second Lieutenant at this time, arrived in Naples, Italy in July 1944. During the following months he fought in the Italian Campaign as a platoon leader with Company C in the 372nd Infantry Regiment, earning a purple heart after being wounded in October 1944.

Moore’s account offers a vivid description of the bitter fighting taking place in Italy as the German forces slowly retreated north. He remembers repeated experiences with racial discrimination and segregation abroad as well as at home but does not recall being aware of connections between the African American struggle for civil rights in the U.S. and his fight against fascism. Altogether, he concludes, he accepted racial discrimination and segregation as a given, because “I didn't have a lot of time to be thinking about civil rights. I was thinking about Spencer Moore—keep from getting killed—keeping my men from getting killed.”
> more

“Like a Slap in the Face” – Interview with A. William Perry

A. William Perry was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1924. In November 1942 at the age of 18, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army . In this interview Perry describes his experiences as a soldier in the 92nd Infantry Division, where he was first stationed at several U.S. Army posts for almost two years and later assigned to a combat unit in Italy.

Shortly after his induction Perry was sent to Fort McClelland, Alabama – his first time south of the Ohio River. While Perry had little hope for the integration of the Army he had nonetheless expected equal treatment. However, the confrontation with open racism and discrimination hit him “like a slap in the face.” These negative experiences in both the military and Southern society revealed a level of racial inequality he had formerly thought unimaginable. As Perry remembers, “it was like somebody pulled a veil from my face.”

In August 1944, Perry was among the first African-American soldiers deployed in combat units to Europe. As part of the 370th Infantry Regiment, he fought the slowly retreating German army from Naples, Italy. Returning to the United States in November 1945, Perry initially expected some change with regard to racial discrimination in the military. He soon realized, however, that these hopes were to be disappointed. Many African Americans, Perry concludes, “left the Army with a bitter feeling.”