Ruhleben POW Camp School prospectus for work (1917)Amistad Research Center
Harry Edward, the Prisoner
Harry Edward was born in Berlin, Germany on April 15, 1898, to a Guyanese father of African descent and a Prussian mother. His father worked as a cabin boy and in restaurants, and his mother taught piano. Reared and educated in Germany, Edward grew up speaking three languages.
After the outbreak of the Great War (or World War I) around age 20, German police detained Edward under "schutzhaft," or protective custody. He was considered a British subject due to his father's lineage. He was held as a prisoner of war in an internment camp at Ruhleben, Germany for three years. The camp held British subjects that were living or working in the German empire. Edward collected these food ration cards, as well as other items and photographs, from his time in the camp.
Edward recalls in his autobiography that "the Allied forces imposed a tight blockade on Germany during World War I. Food was strictly rationed throughout the country, and when the population had little to eat there was even less food for the prisoners. Thus the quality of food grew progressively worse: black bread was adulterated with saw-dust, potato peelings and powdered bones. Horsemeat of animals killed at the front [lines of the war] was pickled in brine and sent to prison camps."
At the end of the war, the prisoners of Ruhleben were "repatriated" to Great Britain. Edward, however, had never previously lived outside of Germany. The return home for his fellow prisoners was a forced emigration for him.
"The reception at Leith, Scotland, was a gala affair with an admiral and a naval band on the docks... We were now ex-prisoners, which was hard to believe... A bunch of excited, teen-aged, Scotch lassies jumped into the ambulance taking us to the railroad station and insisted on kissing all of us. We were embarrassed with this unaccustomed outpouring of affection but we put up no resistance, yielding without protestations."
British Olympic track and field team (1920)Amistad Research Center
Harry Edward, the Athlete
Following the end of World War I, Edward immigrated to Great Britain, where, due to his facility with languages, he taught French and German in London. While there, Edward joined the Polytechnic Harriers Athletic Club and began his career as a track and field athlete.
He ran for Great Britain in the 1920 Olympics, winning bronze medals in the 100- and 200-meter sprints. He received the Harvey Memorial Gold Cup in 1921 as the best champion of the year in London. In 1922, Edward won three Amateur Athletic Association championships (in the 100-, 220-, and 440-yard dashes) in one day and received personal congratulations from King George V.
Letter from J. E. K. Studd to Harry Edward (August 17, 1923) by J. E. K. StuddAmistad Research Center
“May you avoid the horrors of Ellis Island.”
The post-war period saw 40 million dead or wounded across Europe. Edward viewed sports an an escape and opportunity to emerge as an individual. In this August 1923 letter, his fellow club member J.E.K. Studd wishes him well in America, but advises him:
After his athletic success in Great Britain, Edward decided to try his fortunes in the United States. “The question of color had not affected me previously in any serious manner,” Edward recalled later, yet he encountered Jim Crow policies in the United States. He experienced a situation not uncommon to immigrant populations: difficulties in finding gainful employment.
Flyer for Harlem's Own Co-operative, Inc. by Harlem's Own Co-operative, Inc.Amistad Research Center
Harry Edward, the Humanitarian
Yet Edward was not deterred by his early struggles and led an active life in the United States. He organized, incorporated and managed Harlem’s Own Co-operative in New York, as well as managed the Works Progress Administration’s New York Federal Theatre.
Following World War II, Edward joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, working in northern Greece, and he later worked with aid organizations in Germany and Vietnam during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952, Edward became the deputy chief of the Asian-American Relations Section of the Committee for Free Asia. In 1957, he returned to aid work and became the director of the Vietnam Foster Parents' Plan.
Master of Arts degree award to Harry Edward (1969)Amistad Research Center
Alongside his work with the United Nations, Edward received a B.A. and M.A. in international relations from City College of the City University of New York, earning his master of arts degree at age 71.
Edward’s engaged life is illustrated by the collected writings and documents in his personal papers preserved at the Amistad Research Center, samples of which are displayed here. Using information received from contacts from his work in Vietnam, Edward wrote about America's Vietnam experience from an insider's perspective. He corresponded with Senator Jacob Javits about international relations and U.S.-Indochina policy, and with Robert F. Kennedy regarding foreign aid and human rights.
"Dark-skinned Columbus discovers America: The Autobiography of One who became Colored" "Dark-skinned Columbus discovers America: The Autobiography of One who became Colored" (1938) by Harry EdwardAmistad Research Center
Harry Edward, the Writer
Though never published, Edward wrote four drafts of an autobiography in which he discussed his life in detail. “Dark-Skinned Columbus Discovers America” is a draft written in 1938 around the time of his second marriage and the birth of his son.
Handwritten draft of Harry Edward's autobiography (circa 1969) by Harry EdwardAmistad Research Center
In 1969 he began recounting his life in detail. On "page 1" of this handwritten draft he recalls the events of June 28, 1914 that led to the outbreak of war in Europe.
Typescript draft of Harry Edward's autobiography (circa 1972) by Harry EdwardAmistad Research Center
Edward finished his autobiography in 1972 with the title "When I Passed the Statue of Liberty - I Became Black: The Autobiography of an Ex-European." He approached publishers in the U.S. and U.K. with little success.
Harry Edward (circa 1920s)Amistad Research Center
Harry F.V. Edward suffered a heart attack while visiting his sister in Germany and died in July 1973. He lived a life devoted to internationalism, and aiding refugees and others displaced by war and conflict.
Digital exhibition curated by Phillip Cunningham. Based on a physical exhibition, "I Know Them as People, Not as Figures: Narratives and Images of American Immigration," curated by Christopher Harter that ran from September 23, 2019 through February 29, 2020 at the Amistad Research Center.