When Jim Crow Reigned Amid the Rubble of Nazi Germany

Thousands of African-American troops were sent to a defeated Germany to promote democracy, even as they were confined to the social order of Jim Crow.

In commemoration of Black History Month, the latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series by The Times that documents lesser-known stories from World War II, focuses on the challenges of black troops stationed in Germany in the aftermath of the war.

When Walter White, the head of the N.A.A.C.P. from 1931 to 1955, wrote a piece for the Chicago Defender in 1948 about a recent trip he had taken to Germany to report on black troops stationed there, he reflected on one particular question Germans had asked him about America: “How can you talk about German racism as long as you maintain separate white and black armies?”

As a civil rights activist, White had posed that very question to the United States government time and again. And the answer he received repeatedly was frank: America functioned under Jim Crow and the military was no different.

For the 1.2 million black men who served in a segregated army during World War II, efficiency and bravery on the battlefield didn’t lead to the social changes they had hoped for. The gulf between America’s ideals and its realities hit home particularly hard for one group: the thousands of black occupation troops sent to a defeated Germany to promote democracy.

“The military was just as segregated as the Deep South,” said Richard Kingsberry, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who leads the National Association for Black Veterans, a veterans’ service organization. “They didn’t want blacks in leadership positions. They didn’t want blacks supervising other soldiers. They wanted to function as they did in the United States.”

It didn’t matter that African-American men had been essential to winning the war. A famed truck convoy called the Red Ball Express, made up of mostly black drivers, became invaluable to Gen. George S. Patton, delivering vital goods to Allied troops on the front lines in France. The all-black 761st Tank Battalion fought valiantly in the Battle of the Bulge. The famed Tuskegee airmen escorted U.S. bombers in Europe, engaging in air combat over Sicily, Italy and Germany.

None of those heroic efforts by black troops, nor countless others, changed their second-class status during the war — or in its aftermath.

The occupation years, 1945 to 1955, would expose a glaring hypocrisy perpetuated by the United States. Black occupation troops were part of the effort to prevent the resurgence of Nazism, yet for years were housed in segregated quarters, barred from officers’ clubs (regardless of their rank) and openly slurred, harassed and physically attacked by white American service members.

The restrictions and abuse served to reinforce the military’s racial hierarchy and maintain the perception that Jim Crow laws remained in effect, even overseas.

“It would cause trouble if black soldiers were in charge of occupying a white population,” said Maria Höhn, a professor at Vassar College and a co-author of the book “A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany.” “If they were put in charge of guarding white German prisoners or running an office and having authority over white people, the military was concerned that would distort black soldiers’ perceptions of their own place in society.”

When the Nazi regime surrendered on May 7, 1945, there were 1.6 million American troops in Germany. As the threat of Nazi uprisings dissipated, the United States withdrew a substantial number of its troops. By 1948, there were approximately 90,000 American occupation service members in Germany and 10,000 were black, according to Höhn’s book.

But by 1951, as the Cold War was intensifying, the number of U.S. occupation troops rose to 250,000, with African-Americans making up 10 percent. The U.S. military was careful to keep that percentage as the cap so that the American military would be identified as overwhelmingly white

Credit…U.S. Army Signal Corps

Discrimination toward black troops came not just from white soldiers but also the highest rungs of the military ladder, including commanders who expressed their resentment of black service members for being a part of the occupation, bitter that blacks were allowed to represent America during the occupation. As Höhn notes in her book, Gen. Joseph T. McNarney, the military governor of the American zone from 1945 to 1947, said that it would take 100 years before “the Negro will develop to the point where he will be on a parity with white Americans.” Unsurprisingly, no African-Americans served on his staff in Frankfurt, Höhn wrote.

That was not unusual. “You had very few African-Americans in Heidelberg or Frankfurt or other big cities, because that’s where the intelligence and tactical units were, where policy was made and implemented,” Höhn said. Instead, a substantial number of black troops were stationed in the more rural regions: Hesse, Bavaria and later in the Rhineland-Palatinate, where the large training camps and bases were located. The majority of black troops were relegated to labor and service roles — loading and unloading supplies, transporting cargo and fuel, repairing army vehicles and roads and distributing food to hungry Germans, the last of which endeared them to local communities. They also performed in division orchestras, like the 427th Army Band, which played for special events and to boost troop morale.

Credit…U.S. Army Signal Corps

Although some black troops held the rank of officer, overseeing all-black platoons, very few rose above first or second lieutenant, said Höhn, and they were not immune to racist slights.

Peter Grammer, who retired from the Army as a master sergeant, recalled when his father, Oscar Grammer, a chief warrant officer, was stationed in Mannheim in the early 1950s. “I was with my dad in the car and he drove on post where he worked,” he said, referencing the military base. “The sentry at the gate didn’t salute him.”

And Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, remembered an account that his father, Lonnie G. Bunch Jr., had shared about his time as a corporal in the 1697th Engineer Combat Battalion in Kempten.

“It was muddy and rainy, and a group of white engineers were billeted on top of a hill,” Bunch said. Down below in the valley, the black engineers were told to pitch their tents where the rain and mud accumulated. “I remember it must have really bothered my dad. He kept talking about how offended they were that their white counterparts didn’t have to wrestle in the mud as they did.”

White American service members also took issue with how easily black G.I.s interacted with German civilians. There were no “whites only” signs in Germany, and blacks could freely frequent shops, restaurants, parks, beaches and local bars. In some towns, white soldiers threatened to boycott German businesses if they continued to serve black troops. And it wasn’t uncommon for white military police to take their batons to African-American G.I.s if they refused to leave an establishment.

Though there were locals who clung to Nazi views on white supremacy, Germans largely embraced black culture. “The jazz, our dance, our music, our arts. The Germans were very receptive of that,” said Kingsberry, the National Association for Black Veterans commander. Black troops also had romantic relationships with German women, infuriating many white troops.

Bunch said his father had told him about another incident when a white American officer walked a German woman in front of his unit and asked her to point out the man who had raped her. No one knew if the allegations were true or if the German woman had been pressured to do it, said Bunch. “It was a great fear. Suddenly, you could be picked out and court-martialed.”

The indignities were well documented by the N.A.A.C.P. and the black press, and were used by the Soviet Union as a propaganda point during the early years of the Cold War: How could the United States promote free elections in Germany while it was mistreating its own citizens there, and making it harder for them to vote at home?

In 1947, with mounting pressure to ease racial hostilities, Gen. Lucius D. Clay, who replaced Gen. McNarney as military governor of the American zone, ordered the creation of the 7800th Infantry Platoon — an honor guard of black troops based in Berlin — putting African-Americans in front of visiting dignitaries for the world to see. Stationed at Andrews Barracks, the former home of Hitler’s SS bodyguards, the soldiers were handpicked, “handsome men, all over six-feet,” wrote the American military governor of Berlin, Brig. Gen. Frank L. Howley, in his memoir of the occupation, “Berlin Command.” “They were excellently trained, smartly uniformed, and, when they appeared on parade, Russian propaganda about the sorry lot of the American Negro looked pretty silly.”

The tactic may have helped improve perceptions of the United States, but it didn’t change the daily realities for black soldiers.

“They knew they were being used,” said Höhn, who notes in her book that the G.I. service club in front of Clay’s Berlin headquarters did not permit black soldiers on the premises.

Credit…U.S. Army

Roi Ottley, an African-American war correspondent, wrote for several newspapers about black occupation troops and how their treatment undermined the political mission of the United States.

“His writing illuminates the American paradox,” said Mark Huddle, a professor at Georgia College and State University and editor of “Roi Ottley’s World War II: The Lost Diary of an African American Journalist. The process of re-educating Germans about a fair and free democratic society contradicted how America truly operated, Huddle said. “There were white troops that were probably almost as hateful towards black American soldiers as they were toward their German enemy.”

Despite their treatment by white American service members, a number of black troops expressed their preference for life in Germany compared with back home. The percentage of black G.I.s extending their tours of duty in Germany was three times that of white G.I.s. A Chicago Defender article from June 1946 reported that 85 percent of black volunteer enlistments requested service in Europe, with the majority requesting assignments in Germany, as noted in Höhn’s book.

A black soldier stationed in Germany reflected on his experience in the December 1945 issue of The New Republic. “You hear a lot of stuff about how homesick the overseas American soldier is for the good old USA,” he said. “But you don’t hear much of that from the Negro soldier. Not the ones in Europe. Anyway, not the ones I know, not the ones in the 41st Engineers. Hell, why should they be homesick? Homesick for Jim Crow, for poll taxes and segregated slums? Homesick for lynchings and race riots?”

As time passed, the pressure to address the glaring mistreatment of African-American occupation troops continued to rise. “The black press and the N.A.A.C.P. were very tactical about this,” Höhn said. “They basically said to the American military leadership, ‘We’re making fools of ourselves over there, teaching the Germans democracy with a segregated army.’”

With mounting pressure, President Truman formed a presidential committee on civil rights to address grievances of African-Americans. In December 1947, the committee — activists, and labor and religious leaders — released a report filled with sweeping social justice demands, including an integrated military.

Knowing that Southern senators would reject most of the recommendations and facing a threat from civil rights activists who said they would encourage black and white youth to resist military service if the army remained segregated, Truman had to act.

On July 26, 1948, he signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the entire armed forces. It declared that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” The order was met with resistance, and it was not until 1954 that the military was actually integrated. Still, the fight to move beyond menial jobs and receive top ranks in the armed forces would continue for African-Americans well into the Vietnam War.

“Historically blacks have used the military as a way to prove they’re worthy of citizenship,” Bunch said. “I think even though they recognized the unfair treatment, they vowed to be the best they could because they knew that would, in their minds, be a way to open doors of possibility.”

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