Here’s a follow up post to the one I wrote about General Nadja West. This post was written August 6, 2016 and appears here as/is.
It never ceases to amaze me how you can go from learning about one thing to another. Sometimes, it feels a little like digging for gold. I’ll start reading something, learn an interesting tidbit, then study the tidbit more until it leads to an even bigger and more interesting story. That’s what happened to me yesterday right after I posted about how military folks often end up marrying, dating, and/or mating out of their own cultures.
Yesterday, I was inspired to write a post about LTG Nadja West based on a short news article I read about her. Before yesterday, I had never heard of LTG West. I’ll be honest. The actual article about her wasn’t that interesting, other than the fact that she’s a very high ranking black woman in the Army who happened to be speaking at an Army post where I spent a lot of time when I was growing up. What initially intrigued me was seeing that she’s clearly a product of a collaboration between a German woman and a black man. Since I live in Germany, I’ve seen that phenomenon many times and it really fascinates me.
I know I wrote about LTG West yesterday, but I wrote my post before I learned more about her story through an obituary for her adoptive mother, Mabel Treadwell Grammer, who died in June 2002. In 2002, LTG West was a Lieutenant Colonel, just one rank higher than Bill was at the time. He would be promoted the following year for the last time, and LTG West would continue to climb to the stratospheric rank she’s currently holding.
LTG West’s mother, Mabel Grammer, was an incredible woman. She graduated from Ohio State University and became an activist for civil rights. She was also a journalist. As a young woman, she fought the War Department in an effort to desegregate Arlington National Cemetery. She interviewed Thurgood Marshall and stayed at the then whites only Waldorf Astoria Hotel. She was a mover and a shaker. Clearly, Mabel Grammer was a woman who was a go getter.
In 1950, Mabel Treadwell Grammer married her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Oscar George Grammer Sr. She then became an “Army wife”, like I was, and also like me, was unable to have children of her own. Like so many other Army wives, she eventually moved to Germany. Like so many other Army wives, she ended up with way too much time on her hands.
Mabel Grammer used her time to explore Europe. During her travels, Mrs. Grammer visited the shrine at Lourdes in France. According to Mrs. Grammer’s obituary and LTG West, Mabel Grammer suddenly had a “vision” of sorts. She realized that she had much to offer others. She decided to devote her time and energy to helping other people instead of focusing only on herself.
Mrs. Grammer went back to Germany and began to visit orphanages, where she became acquainted with “brown babies”. Known in Germany as “Mischlingskinder“, these were babies who were born to German women and black American servicemen. Their German mothers couldn’t or wouldn’t keep them, so they were given up to orphanages, where they languished. These children weren’t adopted by German families because they were mixed race. Many thousands of these so-called “brown babies” were born in Germany during and after World War II.
In post war Germany, it was difficult for for Soldiers to marry the German women they had been dating. The Soldiers needed permission from their commanding officers and the women had to jump through many hoops to gain approval. Complicating matters was the fact that in those days, interracial dating was extremely taboo in both Germany and the United States. In fact, marriage between races wasn’t fully legalized in the United States until 1967 and even then, it remained taboo for many years. In Nazi Germany, interracial marriage was also forbidden. In essence, the babies born to these interracial unions were abandoned by two “super powers”.
Mr. and Mrs. Grammer decided to take in some of the brown babies they met in orphanages across Germany. Their first adopted child was a ten year old boy. That boy had friends at the orphanage, who also found a home with the Grammers. The nuns who ran the orphanages asked them to take more; they went on to adopt eleven more children, including one son who had already been adopted but was returned because he had leukemia. That child, named Edward, died in 1955 when he was nine years old. The last child the Grammers took in was Nadja, who was just eight or nine months old in 1962 when she was adopted from a German orphanage. She grew up to be a physician, the highest ranking black woman in the Army, and the highest ranking woman to ever graduate from the United States Military Academy.
As if this story wasn’t enough, I learned yesterday through several sources that Mabel Grammer went on to arrange for five hundred “brown babies” to be adopted by black families in the United States. Since this was occurring during the 1950s and 60s, much of the work to coordinate the adoptions had to be done by mail. Mrs. Grammer did not use any help from social services, although according to her obituary, Scandinavian Airlines did help fly some of the orphans to the United States.
I read in another source that although Mrs. Grammer’s incredible efforts were potentially lifesaving for many of the children, they weren’t without controversy. The babies were being sent to families who didn’t undergo any background checks. Mrs. Grammer didn’t meet the people who were taking in the brown babies and there were no follow up home visits to make sure the babies were being cared for properly. Some of the children ended up in abusive situations. Still, through sheer determination, Mrs. Grammer continued her work and dramatically changed lives for hundreds of people who would have otherwise been brought up in orphanages. In 1968, Mabel and Oscar Grammer received a humanitarian award from Pope Paul IX, which was presented to them at Fort Myer by one of the pope’s representatives.
Mrs. Grammer encouraged her own adopted children to forgive their parents for giving them up. She also encouraged the children to seek out their biological parents. She explained to her children that they should be grateful to their parents for giving them life and realize that they couldn’t know what difficult choices their mothers faced.
According to Mrs. Grammer’s obituary, every one of the eleven Grammer children who survived until adulthood went on to make something good of themselves. Quite a few of them went on to serve in the Armed Forces. LTG West has said that several of her sisters were “WACs”; that is, they served in the Women’s Army Corps. Another sister was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy.
I am still amazed that I found out about this story by reading a simple article in the Daily Press about Mabel and Oscar Grammer’s youngest daughter, LTG Nadja West, and being curious about where she came from. I’ll have to do some more reading about brown babies.
Since I’ve found out more about the “brown baby” phenomenon, I see the documentary is being sold through the BRATS Our Journey Home Web site. I may have to spend some of my husband’s hard earned cash on a couple of new documentaries this weekend.