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‘They didn’t let racism win’ — The story of an interracial couple on opposite sides of WWII

During World War II, Elinor Powell, an African American nurse, joined the racially segregated army in Jim Crow-era Arizona. The discrimination she faced compounded after she fell in love with Frederick Albert, a German prisoner of war to whom she was assigned. Journalist Alexis Clark told the NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano about the couple’s unlikely story and her book, “Enemies in Love.”

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    German soldier Frederick Albert was captured in Italy in 1944 and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Arizona where he met African American nurse, Elinor Powell.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    So how did they meet? And what's the story of their courtship?

  • ALEXIS CLARK:

    Frederick, who was a great cook, and a baker, worked in a mess hall. And, apparently, he saw Elinor for the first time and he walked right up to her and said, "You should know my name. I'm the man who's going to marry you."

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    And it was all smooth sailing from there?

  • ALEXIS CLARK:

    Well, she was shocked, of course. I mean, here's this German prisoner of war, you know, hitting on her. Broad daylight. And so it was obvious that he was, you know, trying to court her.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Is there anything about their respective upbringings that you feel made them more open to an interracial romance?

  • ALEXIS CLARK:

    She was from a prominent black family in the Boston suburbs. It was actually very progressive. It was called Milton, Massachusetts. Went to white schools. Had white friends. And she was from an educated family. So although she knew about discrimination. She was largely secluded from that.

    Now on the other hand, Frederick was from Nazi Germany. And he was from a very wealthy family. A prominent family. And they were German nationalists. Now although they didn't join the Nazi party, they were believers in Hitler, and the German empire. But Frederick was an artist. And was incredibly into jazz. And so that had been outlawed in Germany by Hitler, but he snuck around and would listen to it. So he had this impression of African Americans. They were artistic. They were warm. All the things that he never felt growing up in his family, because he had a very dysfunctional relationship with his father, in particular. Because he wasn't a military guy. He wasn't into the war. He really was this artistic, free spirit. So he saw Elinor, and attached all these feelings and ideas, and fell madly in love with her. So they started to see each other in secret. He volunteered at the hospital and they were able to go on these secret rendezvous, and started a full-blown romance.

    When you think about two people who never should've been falling in love with each other, they found each other. And that's what makes this story, to me, even all the more unbelievable. I mean, he was a soldier. She was although discriminated against, she still was an American officer in the army. So they were committing a crime, really.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    If caught dating an enemy POW, Elinor could have been court martialed and imprisoned. But that wasn't the only crime. Frederick was white and Elinor was black, and they wanted to marry. In Arizona in 1944, that too was against the law

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    How were they able to get married?

  • ALEXIS CLARK:

    After the war ended, all of the German POWs were deported. And so Elinor and Frederick I mean, call it youthful rebellion. I don't know. Insanity. They knew that they the best way that they could reunite is if they conceived a child. So they did. So he is deported. She returns home. Pregnant with the German POW's baby. And their plan worked. Because he was allowed to get a sponsorship and he returned in 1947. And they married in New York.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Interracial marriage was permitted in New York State. But that didn't mean their lives were going to be easy.

  • ALEXIS CLARK:

    They started moving around, having a lot of difficulty getting, even, leases, because no one wanted to live next to them. He couldn't really get a job. So they made the decision that they should move to Germany because he was groomed to take over his father's company. It was terrible. Elinor was treated badly. His mother was not excited about having a black daughter-in-law, and made that very clear. They left Germany after a year and a half. And then they moved back to the United States. They first settled in some suburbs outside of Philadelphia. They couldn't enroll their son in school that they wanted to. They were told to go to a black school. So here they were, dealing with racism on both sides of the Atlantic, right?

    And they end up settling in Connecticut, where he gets a job with Pepperidge Farm. And there's this community called Village Creek, which is in South Norwalk. It's actually in their covenants, it's advertised as "a prejudice-free zone." So they settle there, because it was a community that welcomed mixed-race couples.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Frederick and Elinor had two sons and spent the rest of their lives in that Village Creek community. He passed away in 2001 and she in 2005.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    So what do you think we can learn from this slice of American history that you've documented? Why is this story important today?

  • ALEXIS CLARK:

    They didn't let racism win. And I think you can always learn from that. And particularly now. I think we're in such partisan times. We already know that there's an increase in hate groups. I think racism is a lot more overt, in your face, now. I like stories like these, when you show that that's not gonna win. And I think we need to be reminded of these stories of perseverance, of courage. Of hardship. But, at the end, there's a happy ending.

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