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Dr. Jerry Legge stands in front of a “Witness to the Holocaust” panel depicting the exhibit’s subject, W.A. Scott, taking photographs with his old-timey camera. Scott, son of a black Atlanta newspaperman, was a photographer in a segregated unit that accompanied Gen. George Patton in the liberation of Buchenwald. The exhibit remains at the library through May 29.
 

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

Attendance at the May 16 kickoff of a traveling World War II exhibit in the Dade County Library was an impressive 50 to 60 as Dade turned out in force to view the exhibit and hear an accompanying history lecture by University of Georgia professor Jerry Legge, Ph.D. 

But if you missed Dr. Legge’s talk, not to worry: The exhibit, “Witness to the Holocaust,” is self-guided and will remain at the library through May 29. The library invites all to come in for a tour on any of its open days – Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday mornings.

“Witness to the Holocaust” is the photographic and narrative account of the wartime experiences of a young black photographer, William Alexander Scott III. Scott, generally known as “W.A.,” was the son of the owner of The Atlanta Daily World, the United States’ first black-owned daily newspaper. 

The younger Scott was drafted into the U.S. Army while a student at Morehouse College, and as a member of a segregated black unit he marched with Gen. George Patton and his 3rd Army into Buchenwald, the infamous German concentration camp. There his old-fashioned camera captured horrors beyond belief – dead bodies heaped into piles and barely living ones reeling around like walking skeletons.

“Witness to the Holocaust” highlights the irony of a black soldier in a segregated unit helping to liberate a death camp where another minority, the Jews, had been targeted for extermination. Dr. Legge’s lecture compared the parallel stories of the two ethnic groups in America as well as in Germany.

Legge, a political science professor who has taught at UGA since 1980, recounted the history of black soldiers in American armed services, beginning with the “colored units” that fought for the Union during the Civil War. After that, Uncle Sam sent blacks westward as “Buffalo Soldiers” to fight against yet another ethnicity, American Indians. 

By World War I, America had some 350,000 black soldiers but in general these were not used in combat roles.  They served as cooks or in other menial capacities.  

Now, said Legge, the U.S. Army is a model of diversity, but it was still starkly segregated when Scott and his unit marched into Buchenwald, providing many of its denizens their first glimpse at black people. 

“We’ve got soldiers fighting for American democracy, but they can’t really experience American democracy because they’re black,” said Legge. “I think Mr. Scott never really forgot about that.”

Legge said blacks only became full Americans with the Voting Right Act of 1965. By contrast, he said, Jews had been full, assimilated German citizens since there was a Germany, but in the 1930s Hitler’s laws began to limit or revoke their “Germanhood.” Jews were kicked out of civil service jobs, Jewish doctors were forbidden to practice, and Jewish professors were fired from German universities.

Then the Nuremberg laws of September 1935 spelled out with neat German precision what rights the Jews must forfeit. They couldn’t go to the same parks, pools or schools as “regular” Germans, and there must be no intermarriage between Jews and the Master Race. In 1939 Jews were forced into segregated ghettos.

Legge pointed out parallel laws during the same period in America applying to blacks, similarly segregating where they could live and go and similarly forbidding them to intermarry with whites. The difference, he said, was that the Nuremberg laws granted individuals of mixed Jewish and Gentile ethnicity partial rights based on their percentage of “real” German blood – though Legge specified this was not a nicety that lasted after the Nazis began marauding through Europe.

“Hitler was careful of German Jews because they had been German citizens and he didn’t know who they knew,” he said. “By the time they got into Poland, it didn’t matter.”

In America, meanwhile, a person with any degree of black blood was considered a “Negro.” Homer Plessy, whose test case became the Supreme Court landmark Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the “separate but equal” concept, was arrested in 1892 for boarding a New Orleans “whites-only” railway carriage though he was what was then called an “octaroon,” only one-eighth – and not visibly – black. 

But back to Nazi Germany: Legge said that despite Hitler’s anti-Semitic push, the first victims of the Holocaust had been non-Jews. As Viki Staley, executive director of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust, which is sponsoring the exhibit in partnership with the Georgia Public Library Service, said in her introduction of the lecture:  “All Jews were victims but not all victims were Jews.”

Rather, the handicapped were the first to be rounded up and murdered: Physically crippled, mentally challenged, epileptic – “The numbers are not precise but it goes into the tens of thousands,” said Legge.

Then, in 1941, Germany invaded the USSR and killed a million and a half Jews there, mostly by gassing. But here again, the Nazis were fairly equal-opportunity, also murdering Eastern European Gypsies, political prisoners, Catholic priests, Protestant ministers – the list goes on.

Buchenwald, which lies within Germany itself, had originally been designed to house German political dissidents.  But as the Allies began to prevail and Russia chased Germans back into Germany, prisoners were pushed ahead of the fleeing forces and into Buchenwald, overwhelming the camp and setting it up for mass carnage young Scott was to witness. There were 238,000 by the time Patton marched in. “Most of them died in the last couple of months of the war,” said Legge.

In America, the 1881-1914 influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe 1881-1914 had included plenty of Jews, and these encountered considerable social barriers: Ivy League universities had quotas for Jews, only so many were allowed to practice medicine or dentistry, and many became teachers because they couldn’t get into the professions.

Thus, after World War II was over, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s benefited Jews as well as blacks, and the two groups were natural allies. The Black Power movement of the 1970s soured that alliance somewhat as black militants rejected white participation of any stripe, but, said Legge:  “I think it’s sort of on the mend at this point.”

W.A. Scott in any case after his return to Atlanta served on both the committee to create the Martin Luther King national holiday and the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust. He died in 1992. His daughter, Alexis, is still part owner of the family newspaper.

Among those gathered Thursday night for Legge’s lecture, Dade’s military veterans were disproportionately represented, and one of them, Gary Bell, reminded attendees that Trenton’s American Legion Post 106 has its own military history museum. He invited all history buffs to pop by for a tour.

For information about the military museum, readers may call the Legion at (706) 657-5275. For information about the Holocaust exhibit, the library may be reached at (706) 657-7857.

 

 

 


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