Ignore vision of the Virgin Mary? Mabel Grammer's Catholicism muted in New York Times obit

I had no idea there was a woman who took it upon herself to find homes for the many “brown babies” conceived in post World War II Germany between black American occupying soldiers and German women.

But when the New York Times recently ran the obituary of Mabel Grammer, a black journalist (which was unusual in itself in the ‘40s for a female of any color to be a reporter), I learned a lot about this brave woman.

What I didn’t learn is how her Catholic faith informed what she did, including a near-death vision of the Virgin Mary. This is, after all, not a newspaper that often sees a connection — in terms of facts worth reporting — between a person’s faith and what they do with that faith. Instead, we hear about what tmatt likes to call “vague courageous faith syndrome.”

I had to go to Catholic sources to find out the basic facts about what inspired Grammer to do what she did — working to create ways to help between 5,000 and 7,000 of these children.

But first, the obituary, which is a bit late in that Grammer died in 2002. However, there is a good reason for that. The Times has recently been doing obituaries of noted black Americans who died without a write-up.

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. …

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.

We find out that she approached orphanages and the nuns who ran them to see if they’d release these babies to black families in America and Germany.

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.

The timeline in this story begins with Grammer as a child in the South, where a ruptured appendix rendered her infertile for life. She eventually became a journalist and worked for the War Department.

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.

Other than her receiving a humanitarian award from Pope Paul VI in 1968, that’s all we hear about her faith. That’s really strange, since Lourdes is not a vague religion kind of place.

But if we go to this website, we find out (from a speech given by her daughter) that Grammer had a vision of the Virgin Mary when she was young and close to death because of the peritonitis from the appendix. The vision of Mary included this detail: She was holding a kind of necklace in her hands. The girl survived her illness and found out years later that the “necklace” was actually a rosary.

She converted to Catholicism and after going to Europe to live, visited not only Lourdes but the Our Lady of Czestochowa shrine in what was then Czechoslovakia before she began visiting Catholic orphanages in Germany.

One interesting note is that this couple’s youngest adopted child, who was born in 1961, is now Army Lt. Gen. Nadja West, the U.S. Army’s first black, female three-star general and its surgeon general. West is the woman giving the speech in the attached video and is quite famous in her own right.

But she wouldn’t be testifying in front of a Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittee or visiting West Point, her alma mater, if her mother hadn’t adopted 12 children. And the adoptions wouldn’t have happened if the mother hadn’t had connections with local nuns or had a very explicitly Catholic vision when she was young.

Adding extra details about a person’s faith and how that factor greatly affected their lives doesn’t take up a whole lot of room, but would have made a great difference in this obituary. Certainly the reporter would have read the extra details about Grammer’s Catholicism, so I’m curious why they were left out.

Did this happen because of a lack of interest or did the reporter simply not connect the dots?

Just a note to the obituary writers at the Times: Religion is not a disease or an accident. When it transforms a person’s life, do readers a favor and report the facts at the heart of the story. That’s basic journalism. Right?

Please respect our Commenting Policy