Spains seeks identity of black American soldier

Photo one of many in an amazing collection

A picture of the unidentified soldier taken by Agustí Centelles

December 28, 2009

Spanish authorities are looking to identify an African American soldier who died as a volunteer fighter in Spain’s civil war. The unidentified soldier is pictured in a civil war photograph taken by Agustí Centelles, known as the "Spanish Robert Capa".

According to an article in the Guardian, United Kingdom, all that is known about the soldier is that he served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers and that he died in the battle at Brunete in July 1937. The photo, one of very few in the collection showing Americans marching through Barcelona, was likely taken in February 1937.

The unidentified soldier was one of more than 90 African-Americans who volunteered in Spain’s three-year fight to protect its elected government from a military uprising.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, of Germany and Italy respectively, backed the rebel army of future dictator General Francisco Franco. Defending the Republic were volunteers from around the world, along with Russia under Stalin.

The photo is one of hundreds in a collection taken by Centelles. The Guardian tells an amazing story of the collection and the photographer. Fearing that the photos would be used to help identify people for reprisals, Centelles fled Spain and ventured to France. He carried the photos with him, but then fled France after Germany invaded the country, the Gestapo in pursuit after hearing that he was using his camera to take photos for false passports. He returned to Spain, leaving his collection behind with a family in the south of France, where it remained for three generations.

“Agustí Centelles sent the French family a present every Christmas as a sign that he was still alive,” the Guardian article noted. “Spain did not give the photographer a passport until 1962, when the family travelled to Carcasonne to check the suitcase was still there. It was only in 1976, a year after Franco died, that he dared pick up the suitcase and bring it home.”

Spain recently acquired the collection from the Centelles family. Agustí’s son, Sergi, is helping to look for the black American shown in one of the photographs in hopes that it can be presented to President Barack Obama when he visits Spain in 2010.

Assistance has been provided by the New York-based Abraham Lincoln Brigades Association and New York University’s Tamiment library, but positive identification remains elusive. “Two possible candidates have emerged: Milton Herndon, whose brother Angelo won a famous supreme court case against a sentence for "incitement to insurrection", and aviator Paul Williams,” the Guardian reports.

Any one with information on the soldier or his family members is asked to contact giles.tremlett@guardian.co.uk.
 

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