After Allied Forces defeated Germany in World War II, the United States began its occupation of West Germany from 1945 to 1955. Although American soldiers were tasked with promoting democracy to a country ravaged by fascism, Jim Crow prevailed in the U.S. military and Black GIs were subjected to discrimination by white American soldiers.
But nothing escalated racial tensions more than relationships between African American soldiers and white German women. These interracial unions led to the births of approximately 5,000 mixed-raced children, who became outcasts because of their skin color.
African American GIs and German Women
There were 1.6 million American troops in Germany at the end of the war, but when threats of Nazi rebellions dissipated, that number quickly dropped to 100,000, including 10,000 Black GIs in segregated units. By 1951, amid a burgeoning Cold War, the number of American troops in Germany increased to 250,000, with Blacks GIs capped at 10 percent.
Although some Germans had lingering Nazi beliefs of white supremacy, African American soldiers were largely welcomed at recreational facilities and local bars, enjoying freedoms they didn’t have in America, while drawing the ire of white GIs and the military police who responded with brutality.
“If they would see a Black soldier with a white German woman, they would sometimes assault them and try to separate them forcefully, because they knew that this could not have happened if the soldier returned to Alabama or Mississippi or anywhere in the U.S.,” says Maria Höhn, a professor at Vassar College and author of GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany.
German women who were seen with African American soldiers were threatened, slurred, ostracized and at times, denied ration cards. Despite the risks, romantic relationships still happened, and mixed-race children were conceived. But unlike the babies fathered by white occupation soldiers—with estimates ranging from at least 67,000 to upwards of 100,000—mixed-race babies couldn’t blend in and were called “mischlingskinder,” a derogatory term for biracial children.
The Birth of ‘Brown Babies’
At a time when having children out of wedlock was a social taboo, it was nearly impossible for Black GIs and German women to marry. A soldier had to get permission from his commanding officer, and if the request came from a Black soldier to marry his pregnant German girlfriend, the answer was no, followed by a transfer.
“Commanders and sergeants in charge could stop those relationships overnight just by shipping the soldiers out or sending them to a different Command,” says Höhn.
Daniel Cardwell, who was born in Marburg, Germany, says his biological parents suffered a similar fate after they tried to get married. “My father was being transferred from place to place,” says Cardwell, author of A Question of Color: A Brown Baby’s Search for Identity in a Black and White World. Unbeknownst to Cardwell’s mother, his father had been shipped to Korea where he died when Cardwell was four months old.
Cardwell was adopted at age three in 1953 by an African American couple in Washington, D.C., through the Brown Baby Plan, a private adoption agency founded by Mabel Grammer, a Black journalist with the Afro American newspaper. Grammer, who was married to a warrant officer stationed in Germany, learned of the orphanages filled with mixed-race children and took action. She published photos of the kids in the Afro American, asking established Black couples to adopt the children referred to as the “Brown Babies.” With international adoption laws ever evolving, Grammer pushed through the bureaucracy and arranged adoptions by proxy for African American couples who couldn’t travel to Germany.
To the relief of German officials who felt mixed-race children couldn’t integrate successfully and would become a social problem, the adoptions were permitted, and Scandinavian Airlines agreed to fly the children to the United States. During her husband’s postings in Germany, from 1950-1954 and 1959-1965, Grammer arranged the adoption of at least 500 mixed-race children and adopted 12 of her own.
Desperate German mothers also approached Black army couples stationed in Germany. Shirley Gindler Price, founder of the Black German Cultural Society, was adopted at age two in 1955, in Ansbach, Germany, where her biological mother met her adoptive parents. “There are quite a few of us that are not Grammer babies, but I think Grammer created that environment where a number of us were adopted,” says Gindler Price.
Mixed Race Babies in England
Finding homes for Brown Babies wasn’t just a German issue. Black soldiers stationed in England faced challenges with interracial relationships.
“Certain villages and towns would have dances for Black GIs one day and whites the next,” says Lucy Bland, professor at Anglia Ruskin University and author of Britain’s ‘Brown Babies’: The Stories of Children Born to Black GIs and White Women in the Second World War. Although there weren’t segregation laws in England, it was “suggested by the Americans because it would lessen the hostility between Blacks and whites around women,” says Bland.
There were a reported 2,000 Brown Babies in Britain, says Bland, with more than half raised by their mothers, while others were placed in children’s homes with a small percentage that were adopted or fostered, as mixed-race children were hard to place. If Black GIs and British women wanted to marry, they couldn’t. “The commanding officers just refused point blank,” says Bland.
An Uncertain Future
Truman’s Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the armed forces in 1948 didn’t improve the standing of Black soldiers, because it took years to implement, and bans on interracial marriage remained until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1967.
Grammer’s adoption program was praised but also criticized for what German social service officials felt was a lack of vetting and oversight. Most Brown Babies in Germany were raised by their mothers or grandparents, while others remained in orphanages or adopted by Danish parents.