Overlooked No More: Mabel Grammer, Whose Brown Baby Plan Found Homes for Hundreds

Since 1851, many remarkable black men and women did not receive obituaries in The New York Times. This month, with Overlooked, we’re adding their stories to our archives.

By Alexis Clark

They were called “brown babies,” or “mischlingskinder,” a derogatory German term for mixed-race children. And sometimes they were just referred to as mutts.

They were born during the occupation years in Germany after World War II, the offspring of German women and African-American soldiers. Their fathers were usually transferred elsewhere and their mothers risked social repercussions by keeping them, so the babies were placed in orphanages.

But when Mabel Grammer, an African-American journalist, became aware of the orphaned children, she stepped in. She and her husband, an army chief warrant officer stationed in Mannheim, and later Karlsruhe, adopted 12 of them, and Grammer found homes for 500 others.

From 1950 to 1954, and from 1959 to 1965, during her husband’s two postings in Germany, Grammer helped bring about adoptions on behalf of African-American couples in the United States and black army families in Germany. She called her program the Brown Baby Plan.

There were about 5,000 of these babies born between 1945 and 1955, with the numbers reaching upwards of 7,000 in the 1960s, according to records from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota, although the exact count is unknown.

Though many German mothers wanted desperately to keep their children, they saw what the other mothers faced: They were ostracized, denied jobs, housing and ration cards, and were unable to feed their babies or themselves.

[Read about a design for Overlooked that brought life to death.]

“Women faced the stigma of being unmarried, having a baby out of wedlock and having a baby who wasn’t white with a man who was part of the occupation,” said Silke Hackenesch, who researches post-war adoptions and is a history professor at the University of Cologne in Germany.

For Germans, the presence of the half-black children was also a reminder of a defeated nation.

Grammer got to work, visiting orphanages and speaking to the nuns who ran them.

She churned out articles for the Afro-American, a newspaper in Baltimore, reporting on the dire situation and asking black families to step forward and adopt.

In 1956, she wrote: “I can’t understand why people think it is so strange for a colored couple to adopt these children. Don’t they think we have hearts, too? And you don’t have to be wealthy to adopt children. I never had so little financially as we have now, but my children are just as well provided for as any others. If you really want to do something you can.”

Other black publications picked up the story and word began to spread.

Though international adoption laws were still in development, Grammer managed to maneuver through bureaucratic red tape, approaching German officials as a private agency. She was able to arrange adoptions by proxy for African-American couples who were unable to travel to Germany.

She published a step-by-step adoption guide in the Afro-American and interested couples provided her with letters of reference as well as proof of education, income, housing and other paperwork required by the State Department and German authorities. She appeared in German courts on behalf of American couples, and after approaching several airline companies, convinced Scandinavian Airlines to fly the children at a reduced fare to their new homes in the United States.

“She did what militaries and what the government and what the community wouldn’t do,” said the journalist and filmmaker Regina Griffin, who made the documentary “Brown Babies: The Mischlingskinder Story.”

Her yearning to help the orphans ran deeper; she was unable to bear children of her own.

Mabel Treadwell was born in Hot Springs, Ark., around 1915. She was one of seven children to Pearl and Edward Treadwell, a bellhop who died of a heart condition when she was a child. At 10, Grammer suffered from peritonitis, a life-threatening illness caused by an inflammation of the abdominal cavity that had ruptured her appendix. There were no black hospitals in the area and the family couldn’t afford to pay for surgery. Grammer eventually recovered but the severity of her illness left her infertile.

She graduated from Ohio State University and became a journalist. She also worked at the War Department, where she pushed for desegregation of the graves of servicemen who were buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“It’s quite an injustice to be segregated even in death after serving their country,” Lt. Gen. Nadja West, the Army surgeon general, who was also the youngest child adopted by the Grammers in Germany, recalled her mother saying.

In 1950 she married Oscar Grammer. While in Europe, she traveled to a Catholic shrine in Lourdes, France, with other army spouses. She was deeply religious, and discovered a need to help others. Shortly after, she started the Brown Baby Plan.

During the Grammers’ time in Germany, the house was full of children. Local newspapers called Grammer “the Black Fairy.”

“Basically she stretched every penny on my dad’s salary,” West said. “It’s all about faith for us in our family.”

But there were difficult times too. One of her adopted sons, Edward, died of leukemia in 1955 when he was 9.

The Brown Baby Plan wasn’t free of controversy. Some German social service agencies felt Grammer wasn’t experienced enough in child welfare matters to oversee adoptions, and some civil rights groups felt the more urgent need should be helping African-American children living in the Jim Crow South, not babies abroad. And years later a few of the babies described being raised by cruel adoptive parents.

“I was stunned to find out there were those of us who didn’t live in loving and nurturing homes,” said Shirley Gindler-Price, who was 2 when a black military family adopted her in Ansbach, Germany. Her family later settled in Philadelphia where Gindler-Price, 66, founded the Black German Cultural Society, a community for the now-grown children and their descendants.

“She was essentially a one-woman adoption agency and did the best she could,” Griffin added.

Grammer and her family settled in Washington in 1965. In 1968, she and her husband received a humanitarian award from Pope Paul VI. Of the babies that remained in Europe, some also remained in orphanages or were adopted by German and Danish families.

Grammer died in 2002 of complications from hypertension and dementia. She was about 88.

“Sometimes when I look back I don’t know how she did all the things she did,” West said. “I just think of my own life. The opportunities to be where I am today would not have been there. I know that for a fact.”

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