The Von Braun Center sits in downtown Huntsville, a brutalist concrete slab of a building that reminds you of an old Stasi interrogation and torture center. Or, more appropriately, a Nazi one. Wernher Von Braun, the father of America’s rocket programs and whose work transformed Huntsville from a backwater Southern textile town into a major NASA and Defense Department research center, was whisked along with other German Nazi scientists to the United States after WW2, part of the shrouded-in-secrecy Operation Paperclip designed to keep this precious human capital from falling into Soviet hands.
It had been long suspected that Von Braun and others had links to Nazi war crimes and were not the apolitical researchers they claimed to be. After all, how can you be holed up in a mountain with thousands of worker-slaves putting together your V2s and not know? But no one, especially the government, inquired too much; it was the original Defense Department “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy. But it was also an un-erasable historic fact that Von Braun and some of his closest associates developed the V2 at Dora-Mittelbau, mentioned in many histories and personal memoirs as the worst of Nazi-era forced labor camps. Camp Dora, an offshoot of Buchenwald, was built inside a mountain to avoid air raids; its slave labor workers, mostly Slavs from Eastern Europe, died like flies, their bodies left to rot in the tunnels. Out of sixty thousand that passed through Dora, a conservative estimate is that less than one third survived. From this unacknowledged blood-drenched debt came the technology that landed men on the moon, but its slaughter-bench history sucked down the memory hole, out of sight and recall.
But that was then and this is now. It’s doubtful that anyone gathered here for the graduation of Drake State Technical College, Huntsville’s historically Black community college, knows anything of this history. Instead, it is the future that counts. The auditorium begins to fill with piped-in patriotic music and even in the air conditioning, you sweat, confirming the local joke that “Alabama” is Native American for “death by humidity.”
After the Pledge of Allegiance is duly recited, a Drake student belts out a stirring version of “God Bless America.” I looked around. Most of the minority of whites sat polite and focused. But many Blacks present fiddled with cell phones, looking bored and whispering. Is it unconscious resistance or the siren call of always on Internet culture? At song’s end, the College President gushed out, with outstretched arms, “It doesn’t matter what color we are, we are ALL Americans” to loud but polite applause. Like so much in the working-class South, where was the real face shown, in the public posture or in the off-camera unguarded moments?
An older frail but still beautiful woman, dignified and poised, a former teacher herself, looking remarkably like Cicely Tyson and dressed in a long flowing dress and straw hat, sat next to me. She told me her great-grandson was graduating with a Certificate in Basic Education (i.e. a GED) and she just couldn’t control her excitement. It’s a credit to Drake that they bring in the adult GED graduates too and make them feel part of the heady success of a pomp and ceremony graduation.
Drake’s motto is blunt and to the point: “Our Graduates Work.” Nothing about culture, critical thinking or any of the other touted benefits of college. For most, this will be their last contact with the education system. But already you see the insidious tracking effects of that system at work. The pre-engineering graduates – where the big bucks lie – were with one exception, all white, while hospitality services and cosmetology were entirely Black. The speakers on stage dispensed short, upbeat pep talks like “Follow Your Dreams For God Will Be With You,” ”Don’t Settle for Less” and tips to survive the workplace: “Life is not a popularity contest” and “Dress like you’re going to work and not out with friends.” And then, the President shouts “Go – and may God walk with you!” and it’s all over, as parents and graduates file out to the lobby while “The Man of La Mancha” theme song, “Dream the Impossible Dream” plays and into the still of a steamy Alabama night.