Senior Africana Studies Major Tyrese Benson and Professor Richard M. Berrong
Tyrese Benson, a senior Africana Studies major, is working with Professor Richard M. Berrong to create a documentary presenting the lives of Black GIs in France during World War II and the effects of their encounters with the French on the development of the Civil Rights Movement here in the United States after the War. Through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program, Benson has been able to record the narration for the documentary, learn how to edit it, and even interview an Army tank veteran.
Benson described the film: “The documentary is just unpacking what comes to African Americans and their impact within the War and others that advocated for African Americans. This documentary shows some heroes, some unspoken heroes.”
The documentary has three parts. The first part covers meetings between French civilians and American soldiers after D-Day in 1944. The second part looks at interactions between French civilians and Black GIs in particular. The third part of the documentary looks at the impact serving in France had on the Black GIs, what their lives were like when they came back to the United States, and how that impact played a role in the development of the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition to presenting the lives of the Black GIs in France, it looks at their lives in the United States and the impact military life had on them. The U.S. army was totally segregated in World War II, with separate mess halls and barracks. Black soldiers were also not able to serve in combat units. Rather, they held positions such as cooks or truck drivers that, while essential, did not attract attention from the white media. Though these Black GIs fought against racism in Europe, they faced racism themselves in the United States. After returning from the War, some of these Black GIs became leaders in the growing Civil Rights Movement.
Benson said, “The impact outside of the documentary when it gets publicized and people are able to watch it is that people are able to understand parts of World War II that were missed and that no one decided to talk about on a deeper level outside of our documentary.”
As part of creating this documentary, Berrong has interviewed about 150 French people who lived in the occupied zone of France during World War II. Additionally, Benson and Berrong have done extensive work with video editing software to create this documentary. Richard Berrong and Tyrese Benson explained their choice to use this research to create a documentary, saying, “It is important to underline that people think of research as something you publish as either a book, an article, or a text. This is the twenty-first century; research does not have to be in that format anymore. You can edit a documentary to make it come alive in a way that a research article or a textbook is not going to do. A movie is going to be more likely to speak to a younger audience than a research article.”
Both Tyrese Benson and Richard Berrong discussed the importance of teaching the information from this documentary, as well as other topics related to race, in schools. As Berrong talked about the migration of people out of the South during the War, he said, “Their participation in World War II triggers the Civil Rights Movement for Blacks who finally had real argument points to make, while simultaneously triggering a white backlash that we still see today…. It is important because it shapes American society today, and it is too important for people not to know about.”
Benson mentioned, “I feel this documentary would be a bridge for having more documentaries like this being taught and broadcasted in the schools. This is history that is unspoken, that we do not learn about or have any recollection about. So, I feel like this documentary would be like a bridge for other critical race theory topics to be discussed and to have critical race theory not even be a debatable topic for people to have in curriculum, that it is just being taught because that’s what it is.”
By involving undergraduate students such as Benson in his research, Berrong hopes to share the research he has done and skills he has acquired as well as generate interest in learning about history, race, and culture. He said, “I have learned certain skills and I would hate to see [students not learn them]. So, by having students involved in the research, it is a way of transmitting these skills, which are skills that you can use to get a good job. Learning how to edit film, to interview people, to produce a video that is marketable, those are skills that can be applied to all sorts of fields, and I would like to be able to transmit those.”
Benson encourages other students to become involved in research “if you want to see change within your community, if you want to see change within what you love. It can be education, fashion. It can be anything, because research is really broad, and you can research anything you want. History is just one of the subtitles. So I would just say if you think your research would be important for the environment, for the community, and there is nothing that you are researching out in the public right now, so if you can bridge that gap and if you can use what you are researching to potentially change policies within your community, within the nation, it is something I really recommend for people to be doing.”
Benson was on a September 2022 episode of The Research Review podcast hosted by Jonathan Evanick. His episode is entitled "African Studies and World War 2 History."
Written by: Griffin Wold