At the end of 1944, Petra's mother Toos followed the excitement of the liberation by the Americans, some of whom were accommodated in a pub in her street. She saw them regularly and used to chat with them in her broken English. Toos was a skillful seamstress and had a small sewing studio. The American soldiers would take clothing to her to be repaired. Toos's parents were happy about the extra money she earned and with the cheese, canned fruits, and chocolate the soldiers gave her for her help. This eased the rationing situation.
The soldiers who brought her their disheveled clothes were African Americans. Toos started seeing Jimmy, one of the soldiers, and they often walked through the village together. People thought he might have been a doctor, or a nurse from the Red Cross clinic. He was handsome and seemed to be a decent person. Toos’ parents had no objection to their relationship, as quite a few of the girls were dating Americans. Jimmy often stayed the night.
When Toos became pregnant, Jimmy was aware of this and together they would talk about a name for the baby. For a girl it would be Patricia, but at the baptism the priest insisted on a saint’s name. Therefore, the child was named Petra. This is short for Saint Petronella, the female version of Saint Peter.
At first, Toos's father was not interested in Toos’ pregnancy, but once Petra arrived in the world ´he was completely in awe´ according to Petra. By then, Jimmy was no longer around as he was suddenly transferred, and nobody knew where to. One day a friend of his came by with some baby clothes sent by Jimmy. He also did not know Jimmy’s whereabouts. Later Jimmy and Toos exchanged letters, which Toos kept in a shoe box.
When Petra was a little girl, everybody thought she was cute as a 'button of licorice' - a Dutch candy favorite. Petra tells the story of how one day she was very ill and had seizures. The doctor was called for, but he said to 'leave that black kid alone, it'll pass.' Toos’s brother was angry and went to the doctor. He reprimanded him for not coming, saying: 'If you are not at our house within five minutes, I'll start gutting your home. If I put a bell on everybody who has had something going on with a soldier, the bell would be tolling throughout the whole village', he added.
Toos married in 1950, and Petra was given her stepfather' name. As a child, Petra was rather withdrawn and only had few friends, when she was about fifteen, she asked her mother: 'Why do I have dark skin while Dad is white, just like you?' Then Toos would read her Jimmy’s letters and show her the baby clothes. Petra also learnt the story of her name. 'I did not ask my mother what else was in those letters, because they were love letters, and that's private', she later said. Petra still had no idea about Jimmy's life in the US or what her mother knew about it.
If I put a bell on everybody who has had something going on with a soldier, the bell would be tolling throughout the whole village
'The search for my biological father did not start until after the death of my parents.' In 2009, one of Petra's cousins told her that her mother, Aunt Alda, had known James Harbut, known as Jimmy. She also had some photographs of him. The cousin was surprised to learn that Petra did not know his name. Some villagers had known him and knew that he was Petra’s father. Petra was stunned. The information she received via American organizations quickly led her to Chicago. Although by then Petra knew James’ address in Chicago, she waited before contacting him out of respect to her mother and stepfather.
A week before Toos passed away, Petra was sitting by her bed. Her mother had a slight form of dementia. Petra asked her to talk about her father. 'If I still want to find out a few things, now is the time', she told her. Her mother opened her nightstand drawer. She gave Petra an envelope which contained three photos. 'You're entitled to these', Toos said to her daughter. One of them showed a cheerful Black boy with a bike. And written below was Jimmy’s full name: James Harbut.
Toos died in 2008. Petra would visit her stepfather every week, until he too passed away. She thought of him as her real father, as they had a good relationship. Once, he said to Petra: 'If this James had come back, I would have let your mother go, but I would have kept you'. During one of their last conversations, he asked her: 'Did your kids really see me as their grandpa?'Petra reassured him that they did.
If I still want to find out a few things, now is the time
In 2015, Petra finally called James Harbut. She had written to him previously, saying that she was someone from the village where he had been stationed.
'After a little brandy I started dialing, although my fingers were trembling. First, a woman answered the phone and when she caught something about the Netherlands, she immediately handed the phone to James.' For about fifteen minutes, Petra and James talked about the time of the liberation and his stay in Limburg. His memories were not all that clear. When she mentioned some villager's names, including her mother's, and asked if he had ever met her, he said he could not remember. James was in his nineties by then. Petra learned he had a daughter, Priscilla, who was born shortly after James shipped out to Europe as a soldier. Petra was surprised and happy to hear she had a half-sister. James also told Petra he did not see his daughter all that often and that she lived far away. He did not say anything about dating Toos or fathering a child with her, and Petra did not specifically ask him about it. By the end of the conversation, she asked if he would mind her calling again and he said that was fine. She called him again after a few weeks. Petra: 'Again, I got the woman on the phone. I had the feeling she was not too happy about my phone call. Maybe she was his wife?'It was just a short conversation. In 2015, Petra sent James a Christmas card, but she did not hear back, from which she concluded he was not interested in further contact and did not want to know he was her father.
'In February of 2016, I got in touch with one of James Harbut's nieces. Mieke Kirkels had found a picture of his house online, with a For Sale sign in the front yard. That could mean one of two things: he was living in a nursing home, or he had died, which was actually the case. Through the funeral parlor's website, she managed to contact Cynthia, the niece who took care of Uncle James during the final five years of his life.' Harbut died on December 23, 2015, in Bowie, MD, and was buried on January 4, 2016, in Chicago.
Cynthia wanted to meet Harbut's Dutch daughter, about whom the family did not know anything. She told Petra the reason for James's silence could have been because after James returned he and his wife were unable to have children. That might have been too painful. James may have pushed away his memories of that time. Petra also learned the reason why James reacted so differently with the second phone call: he had not been able to pick up the phone on his own. He was gravely ill and was in a wheelchair.
Cynthia answered a question, important for Petra. She asked whether James was married at the time he was seeing her mother as he already had a daughter. Cynthia told her the following:
James Harbut was born in Lexington, KY, on October 12, 1922. At 21, he married because his girlfriend was pregnant, a shotgun wedding. Before his daughter Priscilla was born, he was on a troop ship heading for Europe. By the end of 1943, when James was still overseas, Priscilla's mother divorces James. Therefore, Petra's mother had had a relationship with a young, recently divorced man.
Petra's half-sister Priscilla, died in 2012, and was survived by two children, James and Beverly. Grandpa James hardly knew them. Petra and Beverly are currently exchanging emails and photos.
After a little brandy I started dialing, although my fingers were trembling
Petra did not attend the meetings with the other children of Black liberators, but she was willing to share her story anonymously. The names of Toos, daughter Petra and Aunt Alda are all aliases. James Harbut is the real name of Petra's biological father.
Cynthia Shambly put her memories of Uncle James on paper for Petra and this project.
James A. Harbut was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on October 12, 1922, to William L. and Mary Elizabeth Payne Harbut. He was the eleventh child out of thirteen born to his parents. He survived all of his siblings. James was proud of his Kentucky Bluegrass heritage. His father was a groomer for famous thoroughbreds. He graduated from Douglass High School in Lexington, Kentucky. After high school, James married his first wife Nellie McDowell. From this marriage, James had a daughter Priscilla M. Harbut (Edwards).
At the age of 21, James answered the call and enlisted in the US Army. He was honorably discharged in November 1945 after 2 years and 10 months of service to his country. James served in campaigns in Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe. He was awarded the American Theater Ribbon, the EAME Theater Ribbon with 4 Bronze Stars, Good Conduct Medal, and Victory Medal in World War II.
After his military service, James moved to Chicago, Illinois. There he met Marjorie Mae (Margie) Hunt at their church where she was singing in the choir. They married on August 22, 1956. Harbut's great hobby was Buicks, and he drove a Wildcat, Electra 225.
James was the kind of uncle who gave you the feeling you were special. He always had a smile on his face and he was an easy talker. In Chicago, he lived with his wife in a nice two-bedroom apartment in the Chatham neighborhood, one of the most pleasant and safest neighborhoods for African Americans. They led a simple life. He worked for a while at a plastic toys factory, and later in life worked as a public school janitor. At home, he was usually the one who did the cooking. The garden was kept in perfect shape.
Practically every Sunday, Margie and James went to church where he was a volunteer. After church, they would often visit and bring food to the shelter where two of James's cousins were living. They had fallen on hard times, after their mother died when they were still young, leaving behind a family of six. After retiring, James attended a weekly bible study group. Even at his advanced age, he kept up with the news in the papers and on TV. James A. Harbut passed quietly on December 23, 2015 in Bowie, Maryland, with his wife of 59 years by his side. He was 93 years old.