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“[For black soldiers], but especially those out of the South, Germany was a breath of freedom. [They could] go where they wanted, eat where they wanted, and date whom they wanted, just like other people.”
New Article by
Film “The West Point -
Vassar College Initiative“
A Breath of Freedom
By Maria Höhn &
Palgrave Macmillan October 2010
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
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.
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
Lecture given by Dr. Leon Bass at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie (NY)
September 30, 2009 - Mildred C. Thompson Lecture sponsored by the History Department
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."
“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.”
“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.”
“Fighting against My White Superiors” – Interview with Reuben Horner
Reuben Horner was born in Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont in 1910 into an African-American military family. He was raised on various army posts and, after graduating from the University of Arizona’s ROTC class, joined the Voluntary Officer Candidate class—an accelerated officer training—in 1940. He finished the two-year program in a little over six months and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the newly founded 92nd Infantry Division. From 1943 on, he fought against the German army in Italy and became one of the most highly decorated African Americans serving in World War II.
During World War II Horner was repeatedly struck by the extent of racism he encountered especially while stationed in the United States. In his account, he concludes that “the 92nd Division […] was the most racist as far as whites and blacks that I’ve ever encountered.” Expressing his aggravation with one system of racial inequality by fighting another in World War II, Horner recalls consciously channeling his hatred towards his white superiors into antipathy for the Germans he was fighting. As he remembers, “the first [German] trooper that I captured on patrol, I looked at him and I saw the face of one of the officers at our headquarters. So he came in for a bit of roughing up.”
“Young Ladies, Coffee and Donuts” – Interview with Fred Hurns
Fred Hurns was born in 1918 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. In February 1941, he was among the first to be drafted from Ohio and spent the following three years in Fort Huachuca, Arizona and Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi, where he was trained as a medical supply sergeant.
Hurns left for England in Spring 1944 and worked for the 429th Medical Battalion, part of the 3rd Army, moving through Belgium and France, and eventually into Germany. He received five Bronze Stars for his brave conduct in the war, which included driving medical supply trucks through open fire zones.
Hurns describes the unofficial ways segregation was enforced in Ohio, assessing that “Cleveland was the most segregated city in the North.” Hurns was not concerned with the integration of the military or challenging entrenched racial hierarchies in the South. Remembering segregation in Cleveland and his family’s insistence on his quiescent behavior, he concludes, “I didn’t have to go to the South to find out. The South came to me.” However, Hurns also found the Army quick to respond to the dissatisfactions of its black troops stationed overseas. In one instance, he recalls, just ten days after officially complaining about their unequal treatment, “we [Black Soldiers] had […] young ladies to entertain us, coffee and donuts, as much as you wanted.”
“I Thought the Army Would Never Change” – Interview with Denette Harrod
Dennette Harrod was born in 1917 and grew up in Washington, DC. After completing the ROTC class at Howard University, he was drafted in July 1941 and assigned to Company H – a heavy weapons company - of the all African-American 366th Infantry Regiment. He received Company Commanders Training at Fort Benning, Georgia as one of only a handful of African-Americans soldiers in an integrated class consisting of over 200 GIs. Harrod was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in August 1942 and left the United States late in 1943 for Naples. In Italy, his company fought the German army as part of the 92nd Infantry Division for more than a year and sustained heavy casualties.
In his account, Harrod relates many instances of racial discrimination before and during World War II. In Harrod’s view, African Americans were given only limited opportunities in the army and were subjected to semi-institutionalized racism. As a consequence, Harrod even declined the request of Benjamin O. Davis, the first African-American general in the U.S. Army, to become his personal aide in 1945, because he did not believe in the Army’s ability to change its racial policies: “I had thought that they were going to treat the black officers of World War II the way they had treated the black officers of World War I. […] I figured they were gonna pull the rug out from everybody just the way they did then.”
“A Lot of Pleasure in Berlin” – Interview with Lawrence Johnson
Lawrence Johnson was born in 1921 in Cleveland, Ohio and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. In early 1943 he finished his training as a mechanic and was assigned to the 17th Automotive Maintenance Ordinance Company that was attached to the 1st Army. His company first spent several months in England and Scotland before entering continental Europe at Omaha Beach four days after D-Day. Johnson and his company moved through France, Belgium, and Holland and found themselves in the heart of Germany in May 1945, when the war ended in Europe. Following a short stay in France, Johnson served five months on guard duty in postwar Berlin.
In his account, Johnson does not relate many experiences of racial discrimination. He details many positive encounters with the civilian population in Europe, which are especially apparent in his description of postwar Berlin. Johnson was impressed by the German people, whom he describes as “highly intelligent,” “hospitable,” and “very courteous.” He recounts his impressions of the massively destroyed city, which he found fascinating, and recalls “a lot of pleasure in Berlin.” Overall, he assesses his experience in Berlin as a very positive one and asserts that the Germans he met did not discriminate against African-American GIs but welcomed them warmly.
“Plenty of Space to Exist In” – Interview with Charles Hanson
Charles Hanson was born in 1917 and raised in New York City. He attended City College as a Spanish major and later attained proficiency in five languages. In 1939, Hanson joined the New York Civil Service but was drafted shortly after America’s entry into the war in 1941. Upon completing training at Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Company C, 370th Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division. He served in Italy from 1944 on, where he was injured twice and lost his younger brother in combat.
Hanson’s account illustrates that the most severe discrimination existed not necessarily only in day-to-day situations but in the entrenched racist thinking of the Southern military leaders African-American troops had to serve under. Hanson outlines one particular speech by Colonel Sterling A. Wood to his black officers and recalls its blatantly racist undertones. According to Hanson, Wood introduced himself to his black officers with the words, “I understand colored people. I had a plantation in Alabama.”
Despite his confrontation with openly racist attitudes, Hanson never directly challenged racial discrimination. Looking back on his military experience and, subsequently, more than 25 years of a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service as an African American, Hanson concludes, “Well, I couldn’t run for president, but it never occurred to me to run! Anyway, you get born into something and there it is! But there was plenty of space for me to exist in.”
“They Treated German POWs Better Than Us” – Interview with Jim Williams
Jim Williams was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1921 and grew up in Philadelphia. He joined the Army in March 1942 and was trained as a platoon sergeant in the 317th Medical Battalion. In Italy, where he served as part of the 92nd Infantry Division from 1943 on, his duties included medical work in field hospitals as well as the set up of prophylactic stations to tackle the problems of venereal disease. His battalion accompanied and shared the success of African-American combat troops fighting along the Arno River and into the Po Area.
Williams observes that especially in the medical battalion, where black doctors often outranked the white soldiers they treated, racial tension was commonplace. To Williams, one particular instance poignantly exposed racial inequality in the military: German prisoners of war (POWs) working in the mess line one day refused to serve black American soldiers, whereupon the Army “took them off the serving line.” Williams remembers that “it was our contention that well, what the hell, they're being treated better than we are.”
Altogether, Williams contends, the war left an ambiguous legacy. While their brave conduct in the Italian campaign proved to America that – as he puts it - “black soldiers kicked ass,” the existing discrimination often hindered African Americans from realizing their full potential. Williams concludes that “[the war] was a period of learning for me. […] Looking back over some of the people that I'd met was very gratifying […] and much of it saddened me, too, because I met so many people that had great expertise in all fields and they just couldn't take advantage of it because they were being held back.”
“I Put Blinders On and Shut Out Bad Things” – Interview with Joe Stephenson
Joe Stephenson grew up in Greensboro, NC, and studied science and history at North Carolina A&T. In February 1942, he enlisted in the Army and successfully completed training at Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. Stephenson was sent to Italy in 1944 as an officer in the 365th Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division. Injured by a land mine in February 1945, he received a Bronze Star for his brave conduct. Upon his return home in the early fall of 1945 he reenlisted and spent twenty years of military service stationed in the U.S., Japan, Korea, and Germany.
Illustrating the differing attitudes among black soldiers toward the struggle for racial equality, Stephenson states that he generally accepted the predominant military policies with regard to issues of race, was skeptical about any possibilities for change within the U.S. Army, and thus avoided instilling GIs under his command with a sense of entitlement because of their military service. As he explains, “I knew when my soldiers went back to their homes [after World War II] they were still going in the back door.”
Viewing the Army as the best avenue for personal success at the time, Stephenson reenlisted despite a continuing reality of discrimination, judging in hindsight that “I put blinders on and shut out the bad things.”
“We Structured the March on Washington Like an Army Formation” – Interview with Joseph Hairston
Joseph Hairston was born in 1922 near Pittsburgh. He enlisted in October 1940 at the Medical Unit in West Point – one of the only units that had any vacancies for African Americans at the time. In October 1942, he finished Officer Candidate School (OCS) and was among the very first black officers commissioned in the newly founded 92nd Division. Hairston was deployed to Italy in September 1944, where he served with an artillery battalion.
Hairston’s account includes numerous recollections of racial discrimination, which he encountered in his twenty years of military service. It was primarily through his knowledge of army regulations that Hairston was able to defend his rights – an experience that sparked his interest in the study of law. At the same time, he applied his military experience when helping to organize the March on Washington in 1963.
Convinced that protest could only be successful if it stayed non-violent, Hairston and Julius Hopson, the DC organizer for CORE who had served in Italy with him, imposed a communications structure like that of the military. As Hairston remembers, “the system we used, was an army formation. That is a regimental setup. And there was no violence.”
“I Saw People Stacked Up Five or Six Feet High” – Interview with Ogelsby Barrett
Ogelsby Barrett was born in Farmville, North Carolina and raised in Winston Salem (NC), where he was educated in a segregated school system. He was drafted toward the end of the war at the age of 18 and selected as a company clerk for the 643rd Ordnance Ammunition Company. After arriving in England in early 1945, Barrett spent several months in North Wales where his company unloaded ammunition shipments for the war in Europe.
He then continued on to France, Belgium and eventually Germany, where he entered a newly liberated concentration camp, seeing the horrors of the Holocaust with his own eyes. Though he returned to civilian life in North Carolina shortly thereafter, the terrible sight of bodies piled up high on the camp side remained barely comprehensible and continued to haunt him. He remembers, “I saw people stacked up five or six feet high that were dead, corpses and all. […] I couldn't believe it. And I hear people [have ]said now that it never happened. I know it happened. I went in one of them. I saw that.”
“I Saw The Walking Dead” – A Black Sergeant Remembers Buchenwald
Leon Bass volunteered as a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II, and served in the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion, a segregated unit. He took part in the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of the concentration camp in Buchenwald. Bass was one of the first U.S. soldiers seen by the survivors of the camp.
Audio Interview and Transcript (Pam Sporn, Educational History Center)
Audio Interview (NPR, 28 November 2008)
Video Keynote Address Leon Bass (Facing History Center, 2008)
Documentary on the Life of Leon Bass (Windsor Park Theater, January 2009)