Germany's 'Brown Babies': The Difficult Identities of Post-War Black Children of GIs

By Stephanie Siek

Part 2: Not the Only One

"Many of us never knew we were adopted, and many of us thought we were the only one," said Rosemarie Pena, who was adopted as a two-year-old in 1958. She recalled feeling that she was "different" as a child in a way she couldn't quite pin down. Pena was 38 when she found out that she had been born in Germany. She said her subsequent search for biological family, and for others like her, is about knowing her own story and being able to share it with her descendants.

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Photo Gallery: Black Germans Then and Now
"I can leave them [her children and grandchildren] a legacy and a history that I didn't have. They need to see me as a victor, and not a victim," Pena said.

Pena's Web queries led her to an Internet group of German adoptees of all races called Geborene Deutsche, and then to a e-mail list called "Black Germans." When its administrator stepped down, Pena volunteered to run it, and she now serves as president of the newly incorporated Black German Cultural Society.

Pena used her skills as a Web designer to expand the Black German Cultural Society from an e-mail list to a full-fledged Web site and social network at BlackGermans.us. The community has nearly 200 members on both sides of the Atlantic, adoptees and non-adoptees. A spinoff site, Black Germans in Education, launched in April.

What it Means to Be Black and German

"It's important for me to find a way to engage both sides -- the Germans who remained in Germany and those who went to the States," Pena said.

The community offers a place to parse what is often a difficult history -- of unknown parentage, half-remembered faces and questions about being black, or German, and what it means to be both.

Members of the Black German Cultural Society can post old photos in the hope that others can identify the subjects and help locate a long-lost mother, father, or sibling. There are subgroups according to interest and background: Black German Cooks; Black, German and Jewish. There's a group for bloggers and another for people trying to learn (or relearn) German.

The organization also engages a search consultant, Henriette Cain, to help people looking for their birth families. It's a process Cain is familiar with, having undertaken it herself. She counts herself as extremely fortunate: Not only did she locate her birth father and mother, but she has reunited with her biological sister, who was adopted into a German family, and three half-brothers born after her biological mother married and moved to the States.

So far Cain has helped more than a dozen adoptees find birth family members with help from several Internet databases and online genealogy resources. When she hits a wall -- or just wants feedback on some ideas, she can log on to BlackGermans.us and post a message in the forums.

A Yearning for Answers

"We're scattered all over everywhere. It's almost impossible to come together in one place, in a brick-and-mortar place. And we're so busy, with the modern world, and we just don't have the time," Cain said. But with online forums, "At 2 a.m. you can go and write someone and have an answer by 6 a.m."

A similar yearning for answers and companionship led Daniel Cardwell to launch his Web site, GrammerChildren.com, in 2007. It aims to tell the story of a subset of adoptees, who were brought to the United States by an African-American journalist and socialite named Mabel Grammer. Grammer had moved to Germany with her soldier husband, and began volunteering at local orphanages where she discovered dozens of "brown babies." Grammer began matching some of the children with African-American adoptive families.

But Cardwell, who is writing a book about his experiences, has learned that his own story is not that simple. Brought to the United States as a four-year-old and adopted by an African-American couple in Washington D.C., he was raised believing that he was a very light-skinned black man. It was not until he began trying to find his biological parents as an adult that he discovered his mother was a half-German refugee from Poland, and his father was native Hawaiian who was classified as "colored" by the military because of his skin color.

"I've been run out of white people's houses: 'Who's this black person you're bringing in here?' I've been run out of black people's houses: 'Who's this white person you're bringing in here?'" Cardwell said of his adolescence and early adulthood. "There is no belonging, which is what brown babies sought most."

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A Brief History of Brown Babies
Brown Baby Numerology
An estimated 5,000 children with African-American fathers and white German mothers were born in Germany between 1945 and 1955, according to the book "Race After Hitler: Black Occupation Children in Postwar Germany and America." The author, US historian Heide Fehrenbach, notes that by 1968, German experts were estimating that as many as 7,000 black German children had been adopted by Americans in the 20 years following World War II.
Spreading the Word
African-American writer and socialite Mabel Grammer, who learned about the existence of "brown babies" after moving to Germany with her soldier husband in 1950, did much to popularize their story at the time. She spread word of the children's situation in publications catering to African-Americans and personally facilitated the adoptions of some 500 children.
The Difficult Search for Biological Family
A number of factors can complicate adoptees' search for biological family. Fathers' names weren't always listed on the birth certificates. Sometimes, mothers remember only a partial identity -- that the father's name began with an H or that it sounded like Williams, or Wilson, or that he had a certain tattoo. Some children had been conceived through rape and their mothers didn't know or didn't want to reveal the father's name.
What Happened to the Fathers?
Although the African-American fathers were often portrayed in 1950s press accounts as irresponsible men who had abandoned their illegitimate children, American military policy made it extremely difficult for black soldiers to marry German women or even officially acknowledge their child. Sometimes black soldiers were reassigned as soon as higher-ups found out about their girlfriend's pregnancy or plans to marry. Occupation-era laws designed to protect soldiers from paternity suits often obstructed mothers' attempts to contact the soldiers who had moved away.

In the book "Race After Hitler," historian Heide Fehrenbach mentions a 1949 survey of 500 African American soldiers funded by an American doctoral student. It found that 280 of them wanted to marry their German girlfriends and had applied for the required forms, but only 22 had been accepted. Another survey done in the early 1950s by German social workers found that 96 of 552 interracial couples surveyed had applied to marry, but only one had received permission to do so. Black soldiers had to seek approval from their commanding officers, who were usually white, before marrying, and they were often turned down.
German Ambivalence
German social service authorities at the time were divided on how to deal with these so-called "Besätzungskinder" -- children of the occupation. Some maintained that they would never fit into German society, and should be resettled in the US, Liberia or Brazil. Others countered that the US, currently in the throes of the civil rights struggle, was too racist to be a good home for the "brown babies" and said they should stay in Germany.

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