The historic 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that broke down all restrictions on marriage based on skin color is rightly celebrated as one of those times the judicial establishment gave fuel to counterculture hopes.
Loving vs Virginia is a triumphant eponym. But even that pales in comparison to what happened between Elinor Powell and Frederick Albert in 1946.
Their marriage was not supposed to happen. Powell, an African-American Army nurse and Albert, a member of the forces commanded by Adolf Hitler himself should not have much in common.
It is not simply the case that marriage was improbable. It is also that the facts of their lives could have majorly prohibited a love affair.
Powell grew up in Milton, Massachusetts, a town Columbia University adjunct professor of journalism, Alexis Clark, described as a “progressive suburb”.
Clark, whose 2018 book Enemies in Love revealed the story of Powell and Albert to a larger audience, noted that Powell’s upbringing was an isolated bright light for a black girl in the 1920s.
Clark mentioned in an interview: “There weren’t really any stories of egregious racism in Milton — Elinor was largely shielded from that. She had white friends, and went to white schools, and had a great childhood.”
Powell’s family also lived above the average means of the 1920s black family in the United States. Her father had been a veteran of World War I (WWI), and in some way, when Powell signed up to be a nurse in the Army, she thought of it as her patriotic duty.
But it turned out that her commitment to national service was a rude awakening for Powell. The US Army was segregated, from combatants to health workers.
It must have been a culture shock for the young woman. She had been raised in a town only a day and a half drive away from the extremely different town of Florence, Arizona which housed a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp for some soldiers of the enemy Axis powers.
Arizona’s Jim Crow laws also made for a credible setting for military segregation. Powell, for the first time in her life, would be introduced to “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” restaurants, restrooms and other amenities.
Powell’s introduction into the service also coincided with the decision by Army chiefs to withdraw white nurses from taking care of German soldiers. This was because they feared what the fraternization between white American women and white German soldiers might yield.
Yet, German POWs were never denied access to other comforts such as eating in dining rooms.
Clark summarized this enigma: “When I was doing my research, I would read various letters that black soldiers wrote to the NAACP, complaining that here they are serving their military and they’re in train stations and they see German POWs use the dining rooms with American guards. But they [black Americans] didn’t have access. And that was also a shock to the Germans because in most of their cases, they hadn’t traveled to the United States and they did not encounter African-Americans at home.”
On one hand, the Army moved to police white women in the hope that German soldiers may not have relations, or at worst, father children with them.
But on the other, black people who were citizens of the US were not allowed the comfort that white German POWs were. In understanding the dynamics here, the uniqueness of the early and mid-20th-century biopolitics should not be lost on us.
Nationality, race and ethnicity were in many prevailing theories of the time, conflated. For the US Army, a baby with a German father would be thought of in no less terms than Hitler – something about “German blood” and all its essentialist features.
This sort of thinking partially informed the paranoia with which Japanese-Americans were rounded up for internment camps after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
But the Germans were also Caucasians. And that fact was also not lost the US Army, hence the comfort it allowed its prisoners of war even if it is denied to US citizens.
After withdrawing the services of white nurses to German POWs, the US Army directed black nurses to take up that job. The idea here was that a group of men fighting on to propagate white supremacy would not be attracted to black women.
However, Frederick Albert, who had been raised by an upper-middle-class family in Vienna, Austria, was one the US Army had not planned for.
Clark notes that Albert’s cultured upbringing was in contrast to many other Nazi soldiers who came from poorer backgrounds. As such, the young soldier was, in his time, a progressive forced to fight the cause of a fascist.
Albert was a good cook and baker, and at Camp Florence, he had to work in the mess hall.
On one occasion in 1944 that he saw Powell, Albert reportedly walked up to her and said, “You should know my name. I’m the man who’s going to marry you.”
And they did, forcing the matter by conceiving a child right before Albert was deported back to Germany after the war in 1945. This made it possible for him to come back in 1946 because he had a legal right to his child.
They got married in New York, a state that allowed mixed-race marriages back in the 40s even if American culture itself was not overwhelmingly in favor. Many other states also found such a marriage illegal.
But the couple could not win all their battles so they left the US and went to Germany. Clark writes that Germany was a much worse experience for Powell.
Although Albert’s family was wealthy and he had taken over his father’s engineering firm, his wife could not accommodate the discrimination she felt in German society. Albert’s mother, in particular, did not like her son’s wife.
Powell and Albert returned to the US in the 1950s and had a tough time starting out in segregated Morton, Philadelphia. It took NAACP’s intervention before they could desegregate the school they wanted their son to attend.
The family moved around a lot, for the same reason of their taboo relationship. Finally, in South Norwalk, Connecticut, Powell and Albert found a home in those times that the civil rights struggle had just reached an unavoidable crescendo.
Powell and Albert’s story puts a face to the often faceless and emotionless statistics churned out by institutional racism. For our time, it is a reminder that the ideologies and theories are conveyed through human lives – something we have been too comfortable to forget.