Contact: Ellen Marsh
Phone: (607) 254-4680
Cornell Collection Documents World War II's Africa Campaign
Archives of George “Doc” Abraham ‘39 reveal little-known aspects of life in Liberia during the war
ITHACA, N.Y. -- An extensive photograph collection recently acquired by Cornell University Library documents little-known and occasionally controversial aspects of World War II’s Africa Campaign. Images depicting camp life in one of the U.S. Army’s first racially integrated units, customs of the indigenous people of Liberia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit to the troops, and Army-sponsored brothels are just some of the collection’s highlights.
George “Doc” Abraham graduated from Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 1939. When the U.S. entered World War II, he enlisted in the Army and was handed a camera along with an assignment to document life in Liberia during the war. Much of Abraham’s work never came to public light until recently when his children, Leanna Landsmann and Darryl Abraham, donated his extensive collection to the Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC).
The collection sheds new light on the lives of U.S soldiers who were assigned to Liberia during World War II in part to guard the Firestone Rubber Plantations, the source of allied rubber during the war. Task Force 5889 was comprised of 2,100 African American soldiers and 76 whites in one of the Army’s first racially integrated units. White soldiers assigned to the unit had to pass a psychological test to determine their ability to get along with people, and the photos show the troops working and relaxing side-by-side.
“This collection will enhance Cornell’s holdings of Africana materials and will showcase previously unknown details on the integration of African American soldiers in the U.S. Army,” said Eric Kofi Acree, Director of Cornell’s John Henrik Clarke Africana Library. “Photos have a way of telling a story that the printed text cannot.”
The archive also contains photographs and descriptions about brothels created for the African American soldiers. These were staffed with “comfort women” who were routinely offered medical care by Army doctors to combat sexually transmitted diseases. Abraham’s photos of two brothels, Paradise and Shangri-La, were featured on the History Channel’s series, Sex in World War II, as well as in his book published in 2000 The Belles of Shangri-La and Other Stories of Sex, Snakes, and Survival from World War II. Abraham and a colleague also took explicit photos of the ritual of female circumcision that he shared long afterward with policy makers in hopes of ending the practice.
"Photo documentation of West Africa from the 1940s is scarce,” said Brenda Marston, historian and curator of RMC’s Human Sexuality Collection. “These materials will serve as a rich, new resource for researchers. We are so pleased to be able to make these fascinating and historically significant photos available to people now."
Abraham and his wife, Katherine (Katy) Mehlenbacher Abraham’43, gained renown during six decades as "The Green Thumb" duo on radio and TV and in a syndicated newspaper column. Their family recently donated more than 1,000 photos, 24 hours of film, and hundreds of negatives from Abraham’s WWII collection to Cornell, along with the couple’s Green Thumb horticultural collection. Both collections will be available in 2008.
On Veterans Day, a preview of the George “Doc” Abraham WWII Africa Campaign Liberia Collection will be available for viewing on LibeCast at www.libecast.library.cornell.edu. A brief narration by Chris Metzger from Middlesex, NY, a researcher and photography expert who is helping to assemble the collection, will take listeners through some of the highlights of this unique archive. Eventually many of the photographs will be digitized and made available online.
For more information, please contact Brenda Marston, curator, at (607) 255-3530 or email@example.com.