General pays tribute to woman who fought for civil rights, started adoption program
February 28, 2012
WIESBADEN, Germany - While Brig. Gen. Nadja West prepared her remarks for the U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden's African American/Black History Month Observance, she came across the obituary of a woman named Mabel Grammer.
The celebration's theme was "Black Women in American Culture and History," and West thought a speech that included Grammer's life story would lend itself well to the subject.
West was correct, but as her speech revealed near the end, she is a master of understatement and surprise. Grammer, who fought for civil rights causes and spearheaded an overseas adoption program after World War II, she died in 2002 at the age of 88.
West, commander of the U.S. Army Europe Regional Medical Command and command surgeon, told the story of Grammer's life to an audience of about 250 people at the Wiesbaden Fitness Center Feb. 16.
As West told the audience, Grammer was one of seven children born to a bellhop and his wife in Hot Springs, Ark, in the early 1900s. After her father died of heart problems, the family was extremely poor.
The family was so poor that when Grammer came down with appendicitis as a young girl, her mother could not afford the surgery required to save her life. The family doctor resolved to make Grammer as comfortable as possible before she died.
Instead of dying though, Grammer miraculously went on to live -- in the truest sense of the word.
"As Mabel grew up, that determination and drive stayed with her, and although the odds of succeeding were quite small, she knew she could overcome those odds and make a difference. And just like Booker T. Washington, she always knew that education was the key," West said.
Grammer went on to graduate from beauty school, and then used the money she earned as a hairdresser to pay her tuition at Ohio State University where she studied journalism. After graduation, she wrote for the Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore, which started in 1892 and is still in business today.
"It was now the 1940s and it was Mabel's time to truly make a difference, and she did so with a passion," West said.
Grammer, along with a photographer from the newspaper, risked her life on many occasions to expose injustices and give a voice to the disenfranchised, West said.
"She took on many issues, often enlisting the assistance of Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court justice who then was a civil rights lawyer, who traveled around the country working on many cases, usually for no pay other than a place to stay," West said.
She enlisted the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to make it so black members of the Women's Army Corps could serve overseas and was also instrumental in getting the government to desegregate Arlington National Cemetery, West said.
"Did she impact our culture and history? I think so. But her story didn't stop there. She has countless other contributions in the civil rights arena, but she always felt that she could do more," West said.
Grammer married a U.S. Soldier in 1950, and while stationed overseas she helped arrange the U.S. adoptions of more than 500 abandoned or orphaned children. Grammer could not have children due to complications from her appendicitis, so she and her husband Oscar adopted 12 children of their own, West said.
One of her sons became an Army command sergeant major and one daughter retired from the Navy as a master chief petty officer, West said. Another is a teacher in Alaska in a Native American village and has adopted a son of her own. There was not enough time to share all the stories of Grammer's children, she said.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI presented Grammer and her husband with the Papal Humanitarian Award, West said.
"I think about how different America would be today if many years ago that determined little girl who refused to die had succumbed to her illness," West said. "All of the individual, positive changes she made may not have occurred.
"Over 500 children could have easily wandered off the face of the earth, unknown, not knowing the love of a family, and I definitely would not be standing here in front of you today. I am one of those 12 children who benefited from her and my father's unending love and great and decent example of what human beings should be," West said.
After West concluded her speech, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
Jia Cade, a fifth-grader at Hainerberg Elementary School, also impressed the audience with her speech. Cade won a fifth-grade essay contest about Black History Month, and although she brought a copy of her speech with her to the podium just in case, she relied mainly on her memory as she delivered it with a strong, clear voice.
"I am grateful for Black History Month because if it wasn't for all of the people who risked their lives for freedom, then I wouldn't be allowed to do many of the things that I like to do," Cade said. "I wouldn't be able to go to the same school as some of my classmates. I wouldn't be able to use the same water fountains or the same bathrooms when most of my classmates would.
"If you were black and your best friend was white and someone told you that you couldn't play with her or him because of his or her skin color, how do you think you would feel?" Cade continued.
Jia's mother, Tene Cade, said she is extremely proud of Jia's accomplishment. "I'm just really overly excited," she said.
The festivities also included an interpretive dance by Danielle Stevens, a selection of music from the Wiesbaden Community Gospel Warriors and lunch. The 66th Military Intelligence Brigade hosted the event in conjunction with USAG-Wiesbaden and the community's equal opportunity advisers.
Shay Boast, a freshman at Wiesbaden High School, sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing: the Negro National Anthem" during the event and afterward cut a cake with West and Cade. "We are really lucky that we're able to do things like this during Black History Month," she said.