Rollins Edwards wasn’t inviting Michael Owens ’12 (M.A.) to eat when he asked, “Have you had lunch yet?” The World War II veteran simply didn’t want Owens’ stomach to turn when he showed him disturbing photos of himself after the U.S. government used him (and other minority soldiers) for secret mustard gas testing. He also spoke of other experiments African American servicemen endured. Owens had come to knock off a quick paper for his degree; he left with a newfound purpose that he’s still working on today.
“I had never heard of anything like this,” says Owens, who was completing his master’s in English at CofC at the time in 2012. “I was just taken aback – a lot of horrific things. I felt a little embarrassed. Here I am a graduate student, a member of the Black Student Union. I’ve been on the Black history Brain Bowl teams in high school and had no clue about any of it. It really pulled me in. What other stories are out there that we just don’t know about?”
Now an adjunct English professor and documentary filmmaker at the College, he turned his paper into a 2017 book, Burned: Conversations With a Black WWII Veteran, and his book into an oral-history documentary about African American World War II veterans, which he’s close to finishing. Of the 16 million Americans who served in the military during the Second World War, about one million were Black. They were fighting both the Nazis and Jim Crow.
“A lot of stories confirmed what I thought about World War II and the treatment of African Americans, and some stories challenged what I thought,” he says. “Everything I read said Black soldiers were not smart or disciplined enough to be in combat. These gentlemen were like, ‘Who told you that? I’ve been in foxholes, I’ve been in battle.’ It was eye-opening.”
The pandemic – and his work writing and directing the acclaimed documentary, If These Walls Could Talk, about the enslaved Africans who built some of the College’s historic buildings, which debuted in March – slowed his progress a little on the oral history project, but Owens hopes to have it completed by the fall. He has videotaped and edited the footage of interviews with 10 veterans so far, but he just found out about two more he now needs to get on tape.
“The main thing, since they’re so advanced in age, is just getting them on film and worrying about the rest later,” he says, noting Edwards died in 2017. “I’ve had several already pass away, unfortunately, so it’s a race against the clock. But I want to find a way to share it with the world.”