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Black History Month: On Display: DHRC

Black Experiences in WW2

For the 2024 Black History Month, there is a display using materials from the Dayton Holocaust Resource Center (DHRC) honoring the experiences of black liberators and black individuals living in Europe during the Holocaust, some surviving concentration camps.

The 784th Tank Battalion helped to liberate the Dutch city of Venlo in early March 1945.

The 784th Tank Battalion helped to liberate the Dutch city of Venlo in early March 1945.

Leon Bass

 Leon Bass, born on January 23rd, 1925, in Philadelphia, moved from the South to the North after WWI. He served in the US Army in WWII, where he faced discrimination. He arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp with four others from his unit after the camp's liberation. No one fighting in the war knew what these places were or their purpose. He became a history teacher and then a principal. He first spoke of his experience after hearing a survivor speak her story. Bass told the students listening that everything she said was true and that he witnessed it. He passed away in 2015 at 90.

James A. Baldwin

James W. Baldwin was born on July 11, 1924 in North Carolina. He attended Fayetteville State College with his high school sweetheart and joined the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program). After training, he was a part of the 784th Tank Battalion, the last of the three all-black, tank battalions. He witnessed the race riot of 1942 near Camp Claiborne, which left numerous black soldiers dead. In 1943, he started active duty, serving as a gunner in the second squad of the Mortar platoon of the Headquarters Company. When he returned to the US, he continued his life of public service, working under Walter Washington, DC's first black mayor, in Human Rights. Baldwin later founded Baldwin and Assc. to help those facing discrimination. He passed away on August 1, 2022 at 98 years old.

Valida Snow

Valaida Snow was born on June 2, 1904 in Tennessee to a music teacher and a minister. Snow performed as a child and mastered many instruments by 15. Her solo career began at 18, working with many famous acts of the time like Josephine Baker. During the 1930s, her most successful period, she toured Europe. But during that time, the Nazis occupied Denmark, where she was. Nazis arrested her and released her in May 1942 in a political exchange, returning her to the US. She tried to recover her career, but she was never able to regain her success or recover emotionally. On May 30, 1956, she suffered a brain hemorrhage backstage at the Palace Theater and passed away from it three days before her 52nd birthday.

William A. Scott

William A. “W.A.” Scott was born in Johnson City, Tennessee on January 13, 1923. He attended Morehouse College until he was drafted. He joined the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion and was sent overseas in 1944. While traveling, they were told of the atrocities at Buchenwald Concentration Camp, but didn't believe they were that bad. When they arrived, he was assigned to photograph what he saw. He witnessed an SS prison guard get beaten to death by survivors, the furnaces, bodies of children, and more horrors. Scott came out of service in the January after. He struggled with what he witnessed, only being able to talk to members of his unit. He discussed it a bit in an oral interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He passed away on March 7, 1992 in Atlanta, Georgia.  

John Withers

John L. John Withers in his military uniform at the Harvard Club of WashingtonWithers was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and grew up during the Great Depression. He attended North Carolina’s all-black, Agricultural and Technical State University and then went north to the University of Wisconsin in Economics. His father was skeptical about his son’s career, knowing it wouldn’t stop him from facing racism. Though he was drafted, he survived the war and traveled to Dachau after the liberation with his unit. There, he saw two young men who survived the camp and liberation. Shlomo Joskowicz and Mieczyslaw Wajgenszperg were 20 and 16 with obvious signs that they had struggled in the camp. Salomon and Pee Wee, as they were nicknamed by the unit, were taken in. He and his unit knew that if anyone found out they brought Displaced Persons to their camp, it meant a dishonorable discharge. The boys were never found and Withers returned to the US in 1947. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in political science and worked for the Foreign Service Agency traveling all over the world with his wife and two children. He found out that in 2000, Salomon had passed away but Pee Wee was alive and living in Connecticut. Now named Martin Weigen, the two reconnected and remained friends until Pee Wee’s death in 2003. Withers passed in 2007.

Black Experiences in Nazi Germany

Individual Stories of Black Americans during WW2

Military Experiences of Black Americans in WW2

Josephine Baker

 Josephine Baker is most known for being one of the first black women to be featured in a motion picture as well as a famous dancer in Paris. In Europe through the 1920s, her fame grew and so did the rise of fascism, increasing discrimination. She became a target for being in an interracial relationship with a Jewish man. With her status working in French counter-military intelligence, she was able to travel from country to country with no questions and hid resistance fighters. Between her and another officer, they smuggled over 50 classified documents through Europe. Baker returned to Paris after liberation and sold jewelry to raise money for the citizens of Paris. Baker was ordered Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance as well as being named a Chevalier de Légion d’honneur, a high honor for military and civil action. She passed away at age 75 in Paris.

Gert Schramm

Gert Schramm was born Nov. 28, 1928 to a German mother and African American father. His father was under contract in Germany under an American company. The Nuremberg Laws restricted many of his father's rights, allowed his arrest in 1941, and sent him to Auschwitz where he died. Schramm was arrested at 15 by the Gestapo and was tortured and beaten before being sent to Buchenwald. He was forced to work at a stone quarry with political prisoners, where few survived. As the only black prisoner, he stood out, but two communist prisoners stood in front of him during roll call to protect him. Once Buchenwald was liberated, he returned to his mother and worked various jobs. With the help of a former Buchenwald prisoner, he started a taxi company that his son still owns. He passed in April 2016.

Josef Nassy

Josef Nassy's Tittmoning (1944): Josef Nassy painted a guitar player on top bunk bed reading music above another man in bottom bunk reading book.Josef Nassy was born in Dutch Guiana, the son of a Jewish businessman. Nassy graduated high school in New York and was an electrical engineer. He traveled in Europe, deciding to stay in Belgium. Nassy began studying painting in 1934 and married a woman in 1939. He was arrested in Belgium after the German occupation of the country and held in the Beverloo transit camp in Belgium for 7 months before being transferred to Laufen and Tittmoning in Bavaria. He created a visual diary of his 3-year imprisonment that depicted the prisoners' daily lives. He was still at Laufen and Tittmoning when it was liberated by The U.S. Third Army on May 5, 1945. He smuggled out all of his art and returned to Belgium where his art was featured in Holocaust exhibits. He wanted his work kept together and it was all bought by a collector, with a large donation of it going to the USHMM.

Jefferson Wiggins

Jeff Wiggin smiling in military uniform Korea (1950)Jefferson Wiggins was born in Dothan, Alabama. Dothan was run by the KKK of the town, depriving him of an education. His family lived and worked on a farm owned by a wealthy landowner. Wiggins believed that his escape from racism was to join the army. He was sent to New York before deployed and learned to read with the help of a New York Public Library Volunteer. In 1944, he was a staff sergeant and sent to the Netherlands. He worked as a grave digger there until 1945. One day, his group of men's white officers disappeared so he took charge. When General Patton came for a visit, he saw Wiggins leading the men and appointed him second lieutenant. He was one of the first officers of color. After returning to the US, he and others in the military were still segregated despite their high ranks. Wiggins would join and work in the civil rights movement. He would pen two books; White Cross, Black Crucification and Another Generation Almost Forgotten. He would not be recognized as a grave digger until 2009 since most black veterans were erased from the narrative. He passed away January 9, 2013.

Freddy Johnson

Freddy Johnson (1943) singing and playing piano in a pin stripe suit.Freddy Johnson was born on March 12, 1904. He gained popularity as a Jazz pianist. Throughout the 1920s, he performed with many famous musicians of the time like Florence Mills, Elmer Snowden, and Noble Sissle. Johnson traveled to Europe in June 1928 for more opportunities. He traveled from Paris to Belgium and then the Netherlands, where he lived in Amsterdam. While living in Amsterdam, the Nazis rose to power. Johnson was arrested in December 1941 and taken to the Tittomoning interim camp in Bavaria, Germany. There, he met numerous other people, including the artist, Josef Nassy. In this camp, prisoners had more freedom, such as the ability to play instruments and create art. He was released in February 1942 as he was repatriated to the United States. He continued to play music in the U.S. in a few residencies then returned to Europe in the late 50's. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1961 and returned to New York City before passing away in March 1961.

Experiences of African Americans in WW2