Since coming back to graduate school, from time to time I peruse Wikipedia history pages out of curiosity. The articles are always ones about subjects far from what I am currently studying or writing about. They serve as a reminder of why I decided to take a stab at being a historian. Specialization is an understandable element of the modern academy. But I envy older generations of scholars—such as my hero W.E.B. Du Bois—who trained themselves in a wide range of fields. When studying for comprehensive exams in American history, for instance, I read up on Ethiopia’s history in the twentieth century.
Of course, while Wikipedia is not the greatest scholarly resource in the world, it does have its uses as a quick reference site or as a place to simply find information. Thus, yesterday evening (after another evening of falling asleep on my couch and waking up, haphazardly, in the middle of the night) I found myself reading up about Germany and World War II. It is a topic I am continually drawn to—not so much about the military prowess of its military or the horror of that nation’s crimes in the 1930s and 1940s, but the way in which one of Europe’s most modern and sophisticated nations could attempt to conquer Europe and exterminate millions of people.
To make a short story a bit shorter (and because you are, no doubt, wondering where in the world I am going with this), I stumbled upon an article about the “Wereth 11.” This was a group of 11 African American soldiers who were massacred in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. Their story is part of the larger Malmedy Massacre, when members of the SS Panzer Division massacred dozens of American soldiers. Until last night I had never heard of the Wereth 11. It angered me to learn of yet another moment of African American courage in the face of enemy fire that I had never heard of before.
As saddened and angered as I was reading up about the event, I decided to learn more about the 11 soldiers who were murdered. I wanted to know more about their stories and the places they came from. Above all, I had to get to know these men so I would not forget about them.
So imagine my surprise to see that one of them was named Robert Green.
I am often insistent on folks remembering that my last name ends with an “e.” I try not to be pedantic about it, but I make sure to let people know that my last name is spelled a certain way. It was certainly helpful to have an “e” on the end of my last name when England goalkeeper Robert Green allowed—in grand England football tradition—a howler of a goal against the United States at the 2010 World Cup.
This, obviously, was different. After a day of conversations with friends of mine about what it means to be black in an academic environment and a nation reeling from the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency, learning about someone who was murdered by Nazis in 1944 happening to have the same name (sans one letter) as I have—it left me on the verge of tears in the middle of the night.
Reading and learning history means that you discover uncomfortable pasts. As a young boy, my father got me into history by giving me books about African American military heroes. Learning about people like Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, or units like the 54th Massachusetts or the 761st tank battalion, instilled in me both a deep appreciation for learning about history and a realization that as a black person in America I had plenty to be proud of.
But for every story of military valor, we need to also remember all the stories that have been forgotten, downplayed, or incorrectly remembered. America’s World War II was a conflict in which ethnic and racial groups across the nation all contributed. That meant also sharing in sacrifice on battlefields in North Africa, Italy, Western Europe, the Pacific, and South Asia. And then take into account the Nazis’ own racial theories, which saw black Africans as subhuman, fit only for manual labor and death. I thought about all of that when looking up information about the Wereth 11.
The good news is that the Belgians have long remembered their sacrifice, crafting a memorial that is the only memorial set aside for African American soldiers in all of Europe. I hope at some point today, or tomorrow, or later, you also read up about these men who died in service of a country that barely gave a damn about them. And ask yourself, how many stories from America’s past do we simply ignore? How many stories of valor, sacrifice, and suffering do we discard?
I tremble thinking about those questions.