By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 –
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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)