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

By Stephanie Siek

For many of the now-adult children of white German women and African-American GIs, adopted by families in the United States after World War II, the search for the truth has been difficult. Online communities are helping.

Rudi Richardson knew something about what it meant to be a black man in the United States. But after being deported to Germany, the country where he was born, shortly before his 47th birthday, he had to start figuring out what it meant to be black and German -- in a land he barely remembered and whose language he didn't speak.

He started life as Udo Ackermann, born in a Bavarian women's prison in 1955. His mother, a Jewish woman named Liesolette, was serving a prison term for prostitution. His father, whom he never met, was an African-American serviceman named George. Rudi was given up for adoption.

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Photo Gallery: Black Germans Then and Now
Like thousands of other postwar children with black GI fathers and white German mothers, Richardson was raised by an African-American military family in the US. He has spent his life trying to find where he fits in.

Born in an era when Germany was still grappling with its responsibility for the Holocaust and when the US Army had a policy of not acknowledging paternity claims brought against its soldiers stationed abroad, some of these children were put up for adoption in the United States. At the time, Germany judged itself incapable of absorbing these "brown babies" -- as they have come to call themselves. In the late 1940s and 1950s, efforts were made to match them with African-American military families, many of whom were stationed around Germany at the time.

Forbidden to Speak German

The adoptees grew up in the United States, many with no idea they were adopted or that they were half-German (for information on the difficulties encountered by black GIs wanting to stay with their German girlfriends, read the sidebar on the left). Scattered across the country, many of the children were forbidden to speak German in their new homes. At the time, it was believed that continuing to speak German would damage their ability to learn fluent English.

After a stay in a German children's home where he says he suffered sexual and physical abuse, Richardson was adopted by a military couple as a toddler. After a few years living on base in Germany, the family returned to the US. It was about that time, Richardson recalls, that his adoptive mother began a downward spiral of alcohol addiction and mental illness.

Richardson was 17 when his parents finally told him he was adopted. He was sitting across from a probation officer following an arrest for joyriding -- and he was given a choice: face the charges in court, or join the Army. Eager to be away from an increasingly unhappy home, Richardson chose the latter.

That's when he discovered his adoptive parents had never had him naturalized as a US citizen. He says he was told he'd get citizenship automatically after being honorably discharged from the Army, but it never happened. This caused problems for him three decades later, when he was deported to Germany in 2003 after spending time in prison for drug possession and petty theft.

"Totally Spooked"

His arrival in Germany was a "horrible experience," Richardson said. "There were three policemen waiting for me, and they escorted me out of the plane to the police station in Frankfurt. They interrogated me for two hours.... The police said that I had to tell them every crime I had committed in the United States. They told me they could convict me under German law.... I was spooked, so I told them everything."

He counts the next 18 months in his "native land" as among the worst in his life. He was often homeless, suicidal and had resumed abusing drugs, including cocaine. One of the few positive experiences he remembers was meeting other black Germans through the Initiative Schwarze Menschen Deutschland (Initiative for Black People in Germany, in German only). The group was founded in the mid-1980s as a forum for people of African descent in Germany and a way to fight racism.

Not all of the children fathered by black GIs were adopted by American families. Although a 1968 study estimated that up to 7,000 black German children were adopted by Americans, many others remained in Germany with biological relatives or as wards of the state. Some of them, like writer Helga Emde and artist Ika Hugel-Marshall, went on to found the Afro-Deutsch movement in the 1980s, raising their voices in literature and the media after years of being statistically invisible and yet uncomfortably conspicious.

But for many black Germans raised in the US, it was the rise of the Internet that sparked their awakening. It connected them to information about their parents and helped them find a common identity. Web sites became a supranational meeting point, a place where black Germans could meet others who share similar experiences.

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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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