Remembering the African-American heroes who fought against Nazi Germany

Holocaust survivor with liberator
Sgt. Johnnie Stevens, 761 Black Panther Tank Battalion, reunites with Max Eisen. Albina Rityunskikh/Toronto Observer

The original Black Panthers of the 761st Tank Battalion liberated Jews from concentration camps in Europe and paved the way to desegregating the U.S. armed forces.

Sgt. Johnnie Stevens was a true American hero: born in 1920 to the son of a slave, he served as a staff sergeant in the segregated 761st Tank Battalion during the Second World War, liberating Holocaust victims from concentration camps. But when he returned to his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, the Ku Klux Klan made it clear that he wasn’t welcome there, forcing him to move.

“He comes back and he’s proud, you know, and he’s got all these medals. And they tell him ‘N—–, you gotta go to the back of the bus.’ Back, you know, to the Jim Crow South. And it’s just perplexing, because it’s like, hold up, we did all this for this country, and here we go back to the same situation?” said his grandson Raashaan Higdon in a Skype interview on Friday from Tampa, Florida.

Max Eisen, holocaust survivor and author of the book By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz, spoke about the day Stevens liberated him from the concentration camp at this year’s Remembrance Day event at Centennial College Progress campus, on Tuesday.

“And I remember May 6, 1945. I could hear there was some heavy equipment that was grinding, coming up the mountain,” said Eisen, now 90, showing the audience a photo with his liberator, whom he visited in New Jersey in 1999. “A tank came into the gates, with one star on it. There were black soldiers sitting on it and they were in total shock from what they were looking at.”

Sgt. Stevens relocated to New Jersey after the war due to racial tensions with the KKK. In Atlanta, he was forced to sit at the back of the bus; in New Jersey, he became the first African-American bus driver in Middlesex County. He was also actively involved in sports for over 50 years, becoming the first coach of an integrated Club League Team, coaching baseball and football.

“There’s a funny story about that, too. His younger sister, my aunt Mae, moved to New Jersey. So after he came back to Georgia and visited his mom, he got a job in Seattle. So before he went to Seattle, he went up to New Jersey to visit his sister. And while there, he met this beautiful island lady, my grandmother. And he fell in love. And you know, he never got to Seattle,” said his grandson, smiling.

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A photograph of Raashaan Higdon and his grandfather Johnnie Stevens. (Courtesy of Raashaan Higdon)

From going hunting together to grilling barbeque on the 4th of July, Raashaan Higdon — his friends call him Ra — remembers growing up with his grandfather and all the life lessons he learned from him.

“In my family, there are three generations of college graduates and that’s rare for African-Americans in this country. It all comes from my grandfather. He always stressed and preached education. This man was one of the smartest men I know,” said Higdon.

Higdon, now 44, works as a support coordinator helping people with disabilities. He describes his grandfather as a caring man who always put his family first and made sure everyone had food on their table. He said he loved stocking the pantry with tons of food and sipping on a glass of Johnnie Walker Red, his favourite drink.

“Some story or something always comes up, every day when I think of him. He passed away in 2007. Every day I think of something. He was such a great man and he was loved by so many,” said his grandson.

Before his passing in 2007, after four years battling cancer, Sgt. Stevens and his family travelled to the French Embassy in New York City to receive the French Legion of Honor, the highest medal a non-French citizen can obtain. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday next year.

“The big thing about him is that he loved his country, no matter all the things, you know, that happened. He still loved the United States,” said Higdon.

His only living daughter, Doreen Stevens, 64, shared in an interview on Monday how her father always stood up for what was right, and taught her and her sister to always respect everyone, no matter what.

“My father was such a humble man. It didn’t matter what colour you were, right is right, and wrong is wrong. We never were taught to dislike somebody. And it seemed like it would be the contrary because of everything that he went through. But no… He was just a good man.”

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Posted: Nov 7 2019 2:06 am
Filed under: News