Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
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.”
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.
So how did they meet? And what's the story of their courtship?
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."
And it was all smooth sailing from there?
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.
Is there anything about their respective upbringings that you feel made them more open to an interracial romance?
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.
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
How were they able to get married?
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.
Interracial marriage was permitted in New York State. But that didn't mean their lives were going to be easy.
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.
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.
So what do you think we can learn from this slice of American history that you've documented? Why is this story important today?
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.
Watch the Full Episode
Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: