East Chapel Hill High School is teaching its students, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community, part of this untold history through the photography exhibit, “The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany,” which features photographs, posters and cartoons about the lives of African-American soldiers in Germany.
East Chapel Hill is the first high school in the country to host the traveling exhibit, which was supported by a grant from the Public School Foundation. In addition to general viewing of the exhibit, a special panel discussion will be held on April 28, led by UNC German professor Priscilla Layne-Kopf and doctoral candidate Denise Hill.
Andrea Wuerth, a German teacher at East Chapel Hill, said she happened upon the exhibition’s website while trying to find material for her class and thought it was the perfect topic to discuss. She contacted the foundation about procuring the exhibition.
“Most of these students have learned about the Civil War and were familiar with some of the highlights of the civil rights movement,” Wuerth said. “But they don’t know the extent to which the military attracted African-Americans and that the story of building democracy is really a part of African-American history, as well.”
Wuerth said most people aren’t aware of the ties between African-American civil rights and German history, and much less so about the freedom the GIs had while serving in Germany.
“Many of the soldiers experienced a breath of freedom while they were (in Germany),” Wuerth said. “And they had certain freedoms they didn’t have when they returned to the segregated south. “
Layne-Kopf said this feeling of freedom motivated these soldiers to get involved in the civil rights movement.
“It’s interesting to see how this mutual exchange between African-Americans and Germans have influenced African-American history,” she said.
This is Wuerth’s third year teaching Germany at East Chapel Hill. Wuerth has also served as a political science professor at various colleges and universities, and is familiar with the subject after living in Germany and writing her dissertation on the German women’s movement.
“It’s really important to me to talk about history and social movements and bringing that into the German language,” she said.
The exhibit was on display at UNC’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center in 2011.
Carla Troconis, German club president and a junior at East Chapel Hill, said she thinks this is a good opportunity for not only students but also the community to come see the exhibit.
“We’ve all heard about segregation and racism in the U.S.,” Troconis said. “But we never really heard about how the civil rights movement could have been spurred by an outside force.”
Wuerth said many of her students are fascinated by the subject as it adds an additional chapter to a part of history they instinctively recognize.
“It’s sort of one of the ‘A-ha’ moments for them,” Wuerth said. “Of the common comments I get is, ‘I had no idea.’ That’s what I’m going for. This is the story they recognize that should be told.”