African American WWII Exhibit at University Museum
Images explore a part of history often overlooked
A basket of Easter eggs for Hitler sits at the feet of a soldier’s dusty combat
boots. Two African American men with large grins hold these Easter eggs, which
are actually bombs with Easter greetings for Adolf Hitler at the height of World War II. “Happy Easter Adolf” reads the bomb in one of the G.I.’s arms.
“I really liked the sense of humor in that one. Even though it is so completely
serious, I like the fact that they were able to make light of such a serious situation,” Graduate Associate Tina Lutz said of the image.
This photograph is just one in the series on display at The Civil Rights
Struggle: African-American G.I.s and Germany exhibit. The exhibit in the Skipwith Gallery at Ole Miss’ University Museum includes original photographs, prints, and cartoons demonstrating African Americans impact in Germany during World War II. Placed chronologically on the walls, the pieces take viewers through a history starting with the start of the Second World War, up through several major events of the Civil Rights Movement.
Of the 15-20 million Americans that fought in Germany in World War II, about 2-3 million of them were African American soldiers. The photographs that Directors Maria Hoehn and Martin Klimke have collected are rare in their subject matter. A photograph showing German soldiers being held hostage by an African American soldier is another that Lutz finds intriguing.
“An African American man holding white men at bay…that is something that you would not have seen in America at the time. The dichotomy is interesting, and so is seeing how differently people are perceived in other countries,” Lutz said.
At a time when racism was so prevalent in the United States, many African
American soldiers longed for freedoms abroad that they did not have on U.S. soil. But segregation of the U.S. troops helped remind soldiers of the racial tensions that were still very much thriving even across the world.
“They were fighting this war to maintain democracy, but they were fighting
racism back at home. Some did ask the question why they ought to fight for a
country that didn’t seem to care about them,” History and African American Studies Professor Dr. Maurice Hobson said.
As suggested in several of the photographs, however, many soldiers
experienced some liberties in Germany that they were not accustomed to. Images of mixed couples at nightclubs at the exhibit demonstrate how things were different.
“In Germany, racism wasn’t the same as it was in America…African
Americans weren’t regarded the same way in Europe as they were in America
at that time. You would often see couples of African American men and German
women out during WWII,” Lutz said.
The photographs and prints on display in the exhibit are part of a research
project that Hoehn has been working on since 1993. First curated in 2008, she felt it important that the exhibit be shown at Ole Miss because of Mississippi’s history with the Civil Rights Movement. The pieces work together to show a connection between the fight in Germany and the fight towards racism in the United States.
“Everyone thinks of the Civil Rights Movement as a movement in the fifties
and sixties, but as you can see in the exhibit, it really did start much earlier than
that,” Hoehn said.
After several photographs from World War II, the exhibit shifts its focus
toward Civil Rights efforts. A portion from a speech made by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Berlin in 1964 echoes throughout the room while visitors look at several images of American activists promoting freedom abroad. A striking, three-toned print of activist Angela Davis contrasts several black and white photographs of she and others, all showing the significance of their efforts abroad.
“African American scholars and activists got a lot of support from Europe. Much of the work that Angela Davis was doing wasn’t just about African Americans
and the Civil Rights Movement, it was about oppressed people all around the world,” Hobson said.
Tina Lutz remembers growing up in the sixties in Memphis when the Civil Rights Movement was at its height.
“Being from Memphis and remembering when MLK was assassinated is not something that us Memphians are proud of, in fact it’s very hurtful. Our hearts still hurt even after all these years. So it really is very empowering to see how he was regarded throughout the world. I mean here is Germany with their arms wide open to him,” Lutz said.
The exhibit strives to show African American soldiers’ service to the United
States and how demonstrations abroad fits into the realm of the whole Civil Rights Movement, a part of history often overlooked.
“What we see with that exhibit is a longstanding tradition within the black
community of African American service to this country,” Hobson said. “You don’t
fight for a country that you don’t love, and I think that’s one of the things that should be taken away from this… it shows an involvement with African Americans in international perspectives. It moves the fight for civil rights from north and south to now being abroad. It also shows that there is a common link between oppressed people and power structure.”
The last image of the exhibit shows a black former World War II veteran at a
Black Power event at Frankfurt Stadium, Germany in 1970. He wears a poncho and a necklace, and stands proudly with a subtle grin, flashing the camera a peace sign.