September 17, 2014

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PBS show features Oberlin professor

OBERLIN — A touching story of black and white comrades-in-arms who fought in the Spanish Civil War will be featured tonight at 8 on “History Detectives” on PBS, and Oberlin College assistant professor Sebastiaan Faber plays a major role.

In the episode, Faber helps History Detective Tukufu Zuberi tell the story behind a dog-eared and yellowing tribute to an African-American soldier named Douglas Roach that belongs to Minneapolis resident David Harry Fellman.

Roach, a young Communist and high school wrestler from Provincetown, Mass., was only 5 feet tall but was described as “an army by himself” in a newspaper clipping.

Without giving away the secrets and surprises unveiled in tonight’s episode, Faber and Fellman said they were thrilled with the efforts of Zuberi and “History Detectives.”

“It was really fun — it was great,” said Faber, who teaches Hispanic studies.

The eulogy to Roach called “A Negro Hero Dies” was written by Fellman’s father, Sol, who fought in the war alongside Roach, who later died of injuries suffered in the war.

Sol Fellman wrote that Roach, a machine gunner, “carried out every command to the letter” and “sought no glory.”

Not only was the eulogy to Roach a good story, but Fellman and Faber said the public will get perspective on why black Americans like Roach and liberal white Americans like Fellman would fight in a foreign war.

“It would be like you or I going to Libya to try and overthrow Moammar Gadhafi,” Fellman said.

It was Sol Fellman’s brother Harry Fellman, a talented artist, who convinced his brother, a chemical engineer, to take part, according to David Fellman.

“My father tried to talk him out of going, and my uncle talked him into going,” Fellman said. “My father believed if they could stop Hitler and the fascists in Spain, they could stop a world war that was brewing.”

Faber said “History Detectives” was also able to interview one of the last surviving Americans who fought in the war, a man named Matti Mattson, who died in January at the age of 94.

During the filming of the program, Faber traveled to Manhattan where he met Zuberi at a photo exhibition on the Spanish Civil War, which was fought from 1936 to 1939.

Faber provided historical perspective as to why roughly 2,800 Americans, including 90 African-Americans, fought on the side of the democratically elected left-wing Spanish Republicans.

The Spanish Republicans got some support from the Soviet Union, but Faber said they were “heavily outgunned” by Francisco Franco and his fascist forces, which were backed by Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy.

The professor told Zuberi that America was still very isolationist after World War I, and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was pushing New Deal programs and did not want to anger American Catholics by supporting the Spanish Republicans, many of whom had anti-clerical views.

“(Roosevelt) could not take sides,” Faber said in the program. “He sympathized with the Republicans on a political and human level, but he felt he could not alienate the Catholic vote.”

Overshadowed by World War II, the Spanish Civil War attracted attention from writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Langston Hughes, Faber said.

“It was seen as a moral cause and it had the support of prominent cultural icons,” said Faber, who chairs the nonprofit Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives on the Americans who fought in the war.

There are two very interesting Oberlin College connections to the war, Faber said. For one, college student Paul MacEachron Jr., the son of a beloved athletic coach at the college, died fighting with the Spanish Republicans against the fascists, Faber said.

Secondly, Oberlin College Spanish professor Paul Rogers went to Spain to research the effort and wrote a detailed diary of his activities, which included meeting the leaders of the ill-fated Spanish Republicans.

Just like Roach, Faber said, MacEachron was a young Communist and a machine gunner. He went to Spain in December 1937 and died in March 1938, Faber said.

When Rogers came back to the United States, he laid low and did not write publicly about what he had seen until the 1970s because “if you were sympathetic to Communism or were to the far left, it was better to keep a low profile.”

Sadly, David Fellman said he never got a chance to discuss Roach with his late father, who gave him the eulogy in a packet of yellowing papers when he was 91 or 92 years old.

David Fellman said his father choked up and wouldn’t talk about Roach or his brother Harry, who went missing in action and was declared dead.

“The loss of his brother was the worst thing that ever happened to him,” Fellman said.

When he returned to the United States, Sol Fellman worked at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland but was blacklisted in 1947 for his political views and never served his country again, David Fellman said.

But David Fellman’s son, Sam Fellman, a 2002 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, fought with a composite unit in the troop surge in Iraq and now works as a reporter for the newspaper The Navy Times.

“He was very proud he served his country,” David Fellman said.

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.