A Black Nurse, a German Soldier and an Unlikely WWII Romance
By Alexis Clark
The nurse and the soldier may never have met – and eventually married – had it not been for the American government’s mistreatment of black women during World War II.
Elinor Elizabeth Powell was an African-American military nurse. Frederick Albert was a German prisoner of war. Their paths crossed in Arizona in 1944. It was a time when the Army was resisting enlisting black nurses and the relatively small number allowed entry tended to be assigned to the least desirable duties.
“They decided they were going to use African-Americans but in very small numbers and in segregated locations,” said Charissa Threat, a history professor at Northeastern University who teaches race and gender studies.
Ms. Powell was born in 1921 in Milton, Mass., and in, 1944, after completing basic training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., she was sent, as some other black nurses were, to tend to German prisoners of war in Florence, Ariz.
“I know the story of how they met,” said Chris Albert, 59, the youngest son of Elinor and Frederick Albert. “It was in the officers’ mess hall, and my father was working in the kitchen. He kind of boldly made his way straight for my mother and said: ‘You should know my name. I’m the man who’s going to marry you.’”
Frederick Karl Albert was born in 1925 in Oppeln, Germany. “He volunteered for the paratroops to impress his father, who served in WWI,” Mr. Albert said. “His father was an engineer and not really interested in his children. My dad ended up getting captured in Italy.”
He joined many other German prisoners who were detained in camps across the United States. With millions of American men away in combat or basic training, P.O.W.’s became a solution to the labor shortage. “Under the Geneva Convention, enlisted criminals of war could work for the detaining power,” said Matthias Reiss, a professor at the University of Exeter, in England, who has researched the history of German P.O.W.’s. “So the idea was, bring them over to America and let them do the unskilled work.”
In the camp in Arizona, Frederick Albert worked in the kitchen, where he prepared special meals for Elinor. A romance between the two blossomed but not without consequences. “My dad was severely beaten by a group of officers when they found out about my mom,” Mr. Albert said, referring to American soldiers.
At Camp Florence, as well as other camps, the environment for black nurses could be particularly humiliating. The nurses were forced to eat in separate dining halls, apart from white officers on the base.
“My mother mentioned that she was in a bar or some place that had food or drink and they refused to serve her,” said Stephen Albert, 66, Elinor and Frederick’s oldest son.
The discrimination blacks encountered was not lost on the German P.O.W.’s.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a German soldier who was held captive in America who didn’t speak about African-Americans,” Professor Reiss said. “They were quite aware there was a major discrimination problem and that the Americans weren’t really allowed to occupy the moral high ground on that matter.”
By war’s end, about 500 black nurses had served in World War II. All German P.O.W.’s, including Frederick Albert, were eventually sent to Germany.
The American military officially ended segregation after WWII, but for the Alberts, the issue of race would resurface throughout their lives. Their unlikely romance resulted in Stephen’s birth in December 1946. After Frederick was able to return to the United States, he and Elinor married on June 26, 1947, in Manhattan.
“I would say the first 10 years for my parents were a struggle to find some kind of economic security and a safe haven for an interracial family,” said Chris Albert, who plays the trumpet with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
“They moved to Boston and my father worked several jobs,’’ he said. “At some point, he decided it was best if they moved to Göttingen, Germany, where his parents lived. He could work for his father’s cement manufacturing business.”
But Kristina Brandner, 70, a niece of Frederick Albert, said life in Germany was difficult. “Göttingen is a small town,’’ she said. “My grandmother never had contact with black people so it was strange and uncomfortable for her with Elinor. Kids used to ask me how come there was a black woman living with us, and why is your cousin another color. Sometimes, I saw Elinor in the kitchen crying.”
In less than two years, Frederick, Elinor, Stephen and Chris, who was an infant, returned to the United States.
“We came back and moved to Morton, Pa. And then they went through the school issue,” Mr. Albert said.
That issue was the rejection of Stephen’s attempt to enroll at a local public school after being told that the school was not open to black children.
“My mother pitched a fit,” Mr. Albert said, who still has a copy of the letter Elinor wrote to the school superintendent and a local branch of the N.A.A.C.P.
In 1959, Mr. and Ms. Albert settled in Village Creek, an interracial neighborhood in Norwalk, Conn., where Elinor became an avid gardener and Frederick became a vice president at Pepperidge Farm.
“We always had great music at home,” said Mr. Albert, who resides in his childhood house in Norwalk. “My dad had this affinity for New Orleans jazz. I think it was a much larger representation for him. That lack of warmth he felt growing up, he found it in jazz and when he saw my mother.”
Mr. Albert’s father died in 2001, and his mother in 2005.
“I now ask myself how come I never questioned my dad about Hitler or what he thought about the Nazi movement,” said Mr. Albert, who will perform along with his band mates at the Blue Note Jazz Club in the West Village this month.
“My mother didn’t talk about it either,’’ he said. “They didn’t bring up the past. But what I do know about my parents, their story is a remarkable one.”