POUGHKEEPSIE, NY -- “The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany,” a multimedia research project developed by Associate Professor of History Maria Höhn and fellow historian Martin Klimke, has been chosen for the NAACP's 2009 Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award. This annual citation from the renowned civil rights organization recognizes distinguished efforts on behalf of veterans and community service partnerships. Through such elements as oral history, a digital audiovisual archive, and a traveling photo exhibit, this year's award-winning project explores a little-known chapter of American history: the experience of African American GIs serving in Germany since WWII, and the role they played in carrying the American civil rights movement to Europe.
Since 1945 Germany has been home to the largest contingent of American troops deployed outside the United States. Twenty million American soldiers, along with their families and civilian employees, have served tours of duty there. Of those, about three million have been African Americans, and among them Höhn and Klimke have found many important untold stories.
"By giving voice to their experience and to that of the people who interacted with them over civil rights demands and racial discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic, we are preserving and expanding the history of the African American civil rights movement beyond the boundaries of the U.S.," said the researchers.
A collaborative project of Vassar College, the German Historical Institute (Washington, DC), and the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at the University of Heidelberg (Heidelberg, Germany), "The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany” has three main goals:
-- To gather historic material related to an important but little known chapter of the African American civil rights movement, as well as its connection to German history;
-- Preserving the sources in a digital archive, so that they are available worldwide and free of charge to scholars, teachers, students and interested parties;
-- And to foster the growth of a community of individuals who are engaged in teaching and learning about the African American civil rights movement, its reverberations outside the U.S., as well as about the history of African American GIs who were deployed in Europe during and after the Second World War.
In fact, the project website contains extensive digitized materials from the Archive for Soldiers' Rights in Berlin, as well as from private collections of former activists in Germany. This rich collection of underground newspapers, posters, and flyers provides clues on the breadth of activities of African American GIs, and demonstrates the many alliances among German activists and citizens. Dozens of oral histories collected from African American servicemen who were stationed in Germany, and from German activists who allied with those soldiers in pursuit of civil rights, constitute another major component of the digital archive. These oral histories compellingly illustrate how the soldiers were affected 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. A third key aspect of the site and digital archive is an extensive collection of photographs and other images -- these document the experiences of African American soldiers abroad as both members of the U.S. military and as participants and activists in German society.
ABOUT THE PROJECT'S PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBIT
The companion photo exhibition of the same name received wide praise during its initial showing November 2008-January 2009 at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Its German tour began May 29 (through July 19) at the Ramstein Air Base Documentary & Exhibition Center, and will continue through 2010 at other sites. A U.S. tour is pending, and will include a fall 2009 showing at Vassar College's James W. Palmer Gallery.
The exhibition consists of 50 images divided into six sections: "From WWI to WWII"; "Occupation and Fraternization"; "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Germany"; "Black Power Solidarity"; "Angela Davis in East and West Germany"; and "The GI Movement."
In particular, the combined works illuminate how Germany emerged as a critical point of reference in African- American demands for an end to segregation and for equal rights. From as early as 1933, African American civil rights activists used white America's condemnation of Nazi racism to expose and indict the abuses of Jim Crow racism at home and to argue that "separate" can never be "equal." America's entry into the war allowed these activists to step up their rhetoric significantly and to call for an end to segregation. The defeat of Nazi Germany and the participation of African American GIs in the military occupation only strengthened their determination. Drawing on the experience of soldiers stationed in Germany, these activists claimed that it was in post-Nazi Germany that black GIs found the equality and democracy denied them in their own country.
ABOUT MARIA HÖHN AND MARTIN KLIMKE
To expand upon their current collaboration, historians Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke are co-writing the book From DuBois to Obama: The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany, a history of the intersection of African American soldiers, activists, and intellectuals in Germany in the 20th century.
Höhn is a scholar of the American military presence in Germany, and her seminal book GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany was the first ever to address the experience of black U.S. soldiers in postwar Germany (University of North Carolina Press, 2002, Verlag Berlin Brandenburg, 2008). She joined the Vassar faculty in 1996, and teaches classes in history, as well as in the colleges' multidisciplinary programs in American Culture and Jewish Studies. Höhn has published numerous articles in both the United States and Germany on the topics of Americanization, German gender politics after the war, German attitudes toward race and anti-Semitism in the postwar years, and the interaction of German and American forms of racism.
Klimke is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, and at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. A widely published historian on protest movements, his latest book is The Other Alliance: Student Protest in West Germany and the United States in the Global Sixties (Princeton University Press, 2009).
ABOUT THE NAACP'S JULIUS E. WILLIAMS AWARD
The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) named its Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award for the first national director of the NAACP Department of Armed Services and Veterans Affairs. Mr. Williams joined the civil rights organization in 1966 and organized the Veterans Affairs Department in 1969. He served in World War II, the Korean Conflict, and Vietnam, and his awards include the Legion of Merit Medal, the Soldier's Medal, and the Purple Heart.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.