11/10/2011

A Window to the African-American Wartime Experience

As the round of applause turned into a standing ovation at the end of Common Hour last Thursday, Lewis Alston rose from his seat on the stage in Mayser Gymnasium. A highly decorated veteran who served as a corporal in the Marine 1st Division in Vietnam, Alston raised right hand to his forehead and saluted the crowd as the ovation built to a crescendo. Some members of the audience had tears in their eyes.

The salute was the culmination of a poignant Common Hour in which Alston and two other veterans of the U.S military, Sydney Bridgett ’51 and Nelson Polite Sr., shared their experiences as African-Americans in military service (click the video below to see highlights from the event). The discussion took place in conjunction with the opening of “The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany,” a new exhibition of photographs in the Phillips Museum of Art. The exhibition is co-curated by Maria Höhn, the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 Professor of History and International Studies at Vassar College, who moderated the Common Hour discussion.


The traveling exhibition—open in the Rothman Gallery until Dec. 13—is a collaborative project of the German Historical Institute, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies and Vassar. It illustrates the experiences of African-Americans in wartime against the backdrop of the Civil Rights struggle, from the battlefields abroad to the fight for equality at home. The exhibition won the NAACP's Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award in 2009.

Höhn worked with Martin Klimke of the German Historical Institute to develop the project in 2008 as a way to mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who visited both West and East Berlin in 1964 and spoke about the “division of men on the face of the earth.”

“We thought the exhibit would be up for a month in 2008,” Höhn says of the initial launch at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. “But people were moved when they saw the photographs. We saw how deeply emotional they were, and how much these stories mattered to them. It shows what pride the African-American community has in service to the country.”

The exhibition has traveled across the country over the past three years, while an identical exhibit has made its way across Europe. F&M is only the second college, in addition to Vassar, to host the photographs.

Höhn recently coauthored a book associated with the exhibition, A Breath of Freedom, published last year by Palgrave Macmillan. F&M graduate Chris Chappell ’01 was the editor at Palgrave who oversaw the book project.

Last week’s visit to Lancaster was a homecoming of sorts for Höhn. As a nontraditional student at Millersville University, she took a series of courses at F&M with Solomon Wank, the Emeritus Lewis Audenreid Professor of History. “I had a minor in ‘Sol Wank studies,’” says Höhn. “He was an incredible mentor and inspired me to become a historian.”

In addition to the Common Hour presentation, Höhn met with students in a variety of settings inside and outside the classroom. She attended several classes, a dinner and dessert at Ware College House and a lunch discussion.

“Maria’s visit has helped our students think of American history as transnational and international,” says Associate Professor of History Maria Mitchell, who coordinated Höhn’s visit. “The experiences of soldiers around the world have huge implications for us at home.”

Mitchell credits a collaborative effort by the campus community for making the project possible. The Departments of American Studies, German and Russian, and History supported the exhibit, Common Hour and Höhn’s visit. Other collaborators included the Phillips Museum of Art, Programs in International Studies and Africana Studies, Center for Liberal Arts and Society, the Office of the Provost, and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. Mitchell and other organizers also liaised with the Lancaster African-American Veterans Project, the Crispus Attucks Recreation Center, Lancaster’s black churches and local high schools and veterans organizations.

“It’s been great to work with so many people as part of a campus- and community-wide effort during this project,” Mitchell says. “This is a wonderful example of the liberal arts in action.”

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