Toespraak Drs. Jaap Cohen (NIOD)

Gepubliceerd: donderdag 13 november 2014

Tijdens de boekpresentatie op 5 november in het Gouvernement aan de Maas waren er ook diverse toespraken. Een daarvan betrof die van historicus drs. Jaap Cohen van het Instituut voor Oorlogs-, Holocaust- en Genocidestudies (NIOD). Tijdens deze toespraak sprak hij onder andere over Jeff Wiggins en ook segregatie in het Amerikaanse leger ten tijde van de Tweede Wereloolrlog. Zijn toespraak (in het Engels) is op deze pagina terug te lezen.


Mr. Ambassador,

Mr. Governor,

Mrs. Wiggins & family,

Mrs. Kirkels / Dear Mieke,

Ladies and gentlemen,

As a researcher for the Netherlands Institute for War- Holocaust- and Genocide Studies, it is part of my job to read many academic books about the Second World War. These books are usually dense studies, departing from a deep theoretical framework. Often very interesting books, but not particularly the sort of works one likes to read in his or her spare time.

How different it is with Mieke Kirkels’ book From Alabama to Margraten. I read it in one weekend, almost without any breaks. Here, you don’t find any farfetched theories, or extensive chapters on methodological discussions. It truly is the story that counts. And the touching story of Jefferson Wiggins is easily strong enough to carry the book.

In January 1942, Jeff Wiggins was a 16-year-old, black errand-boy for a local drugstore in Houston County, in the southern state of Alabama. Jeff was sent to deliver a package for a sergeant, who asked him if he was already 18 years old. Jeff didn’t know why, but, although he was only 16, he answered in the affirmative. The sergeant then asked if Jeff was interested in joining the army. Jeff had never thought about this, but he answered again, impulsively, that he was indeed interested. Three days later, Jeff was a soldier in the United States Army.

This is the starting point of the book. It is based on a series of extensive interviews Mieke Kirkels conducted with Jefferson Wiggins, near the end of his life. According to the quotations in the text, Mr. Wiggins was a great storyteller. Through his words, you get a sense of how it was for an American soldier to be sent to Europe, to experience the horrors and thrills of the landing in Normandy on D-Day, and to see the ruins of small villages in France and Belgium, totally devastated by the war.

But From Alabama to Margraten isn’t just the story of an American soldier during World War II. It’s the story of a black American soldier. This is an important specification, because there was still a policy of strict racial segregation in the American army. The historian Stephan Ambrose put it like this: ‘The world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated army.’

There is another important specification to be made. Jefferson Wiggins wasn’t just a black, American soldier – he was a black, American soldier from the South. By the end of the 19th century, a system of racial segregation had come into practice in the former Confederate, Southern states. In a series of so-called ‘Jim Crow laws’, blacks were separated from whites in almost all aspects of life: there was segregation in public schools, public places and on public transportation. In one of the interviews, Jeff Wiggins recalled: “If you came across a white man on the sidewalk, you had to step into the street. You simply weren’t allowed to walk on the sidewalk together with white people. Those kinds of things we just knew.”

The racial segregation in the South produced a huge list of written and unwritten rules which blacks needed to adhere to in front of whites. Additionally, housing, education and employment opportunities for blacks were appalling. In this context, it is understandable that 16-year-old Jefferson Wiggins lied about his real age and chose to leave his home for an uncertain and dangerous future in the army. He was appointed to the 960th Quarter Master Service Company, an all-black unit of 260 men. The P.I.’s in this troop weren’t trained for battle, but for supporting services: providing food, or military engineering. This was typical of most black regiments since it was seen as dangerous to provide black people with weapons.

The fact that Jefferson Wiggins landed as part of the allied forces in Normandy caused the paradoxical situation that he was a liberator while he himself had never really experienced freedom. This is illustrated in the book by the telling anecdote of a French woman who welcomes the American liberators with the words: “Soldier, you have no idea how it is to lose your freedom, and especially what it means when you get it back.” Jefferson Wiggins wasn’t able to answer her in French, but he thought to himself: “Madam, you have no idea how it is to never have known freedom.”

An even more paradoxical situation was yet to come. After the liberation of the southern part of the Netherlands in September 1944, Wiggins’ 960th Quarter Master Service Company was sent to Margraten, where a huge American military cemetery was being developed. Thousands of corpses from all the battlegrounds in the surrounding areas were sent to Margraten, where they – and this is interesting – were identified by white soldiers. The horrible task of actually burying the corpses was designated to Wiggins’ regiment. During 4 long weeks in November and December 1944, during which it rained almost continually, the black P.I.’s were busy digging graves for primarily white fallen soldiers. While back home it was forbidden for blacks to walk on the same sidewalk as whites, here in Margraten the black soldiers had to bury their white colleagues.

There is a third paradox in the story of Jefferson Wiggins. When he came home after the war, the racial segregation system was still intact. Moreover, close to Wiggins’ hometown, German prisoners of war were kept in a luxurious villa. They were eating good food, had enough time for recreation, and were allowed to travel around the city. When they took the bus, they were allowed to sit in the front, while black people still had to go to the back.

It wasn’t until 1964 that president Johnson issued the Civil Rights Act, which ended racial segregation in the United States. I think it is fair to say that the involvement of black soldiers in World War II was an accelerating force in this process. Black P.I.’s had proven to be extremely useful during critical situations. Also – and this is more important – during the war, a certain amount of cultural transfer had occurred between white and black soldiers. To illustrate this, I would like to share with you one final anecdote from the story of Jefferson Wiggins.

During the crossing of the ocean from the United States to the Continent, white soldiers were housed on the top deck of the ship, and black soldiers had to stay on the hot and stuffy lower decks. At one point, two of the black soldiers got into a fight and were locked away in a separate room. After a while, Jefferson Wiggins suddenly heard beautiful Gospel singing coming from that room. The two combatants had found each other in music. It was the beginning of a tradition on board. Every day, the two former enemies started singing, and every day more whites came down to enjoy the music.

From Alabama to Margraten is full of exactly this kind of anecdote. By reading the story of one man, you read as well not only the tale of an important stage in American history, but also of a gripping episode in the history of the village of Margraten. Mieke Kirkels has blended it all into one, powerful narrative. I highly recommend this book to all of you.

Jaap Cohen

November 5, 2014

Bestel het boek!

U kunt het boek Van Alabama naar Margraten bestellen via de website. U betaalt € 19,95 per boek (exclusief verzendkosten van € 4,00, ongeacht het aantal boeken). Klik hier om het boek te bestellen. U kunt het boek ook aanschaffen bij een van deze verkooppunten.



Van Alabama naar Margraten
Postbus 22
6269 ZG Margraten

Anderen over het boek

"Het is fascinerend om te lezen hoe Jeff Wiggins door de oorlog zich steeds meer bewust werd van de grote verschillen tussen blank en zwart. En met hem mee te leven op de stranden van Normandië en later als grafdelver op het oorlogskerkhof in Margraten."

- Jacques Vriens