Allowed to Exhale: African American Sojourners in Europe, 1820-1939
Written by Robert Fikes, Jr. Emeritus Librarian, San Diego State University
“Here I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity” – Paul Robeson in Russia, 1934
Feeling secure in the promise his master made to emancipate him when they returned to Louisiana after a three-year tour of Europe and the Near East, an educated 25-year-old self-described octoroon slave called David F. Dorr lazily reclined on the banks of the Tiber River on a warm summer eve in 1852. He had spent hours visiting venerated museums, monuments, and historic sites. He had seen Pope Pius IX in stunning regalia. Now he could stretch out and meditate on the day’s events and his highly anticipated future as a free man in America. Trusting his master was a big mistake, for when they returned to New Orleans, he resumed his status as slave. However, his pleasant parole in Europe, a place where slavery had been abolished, undoubtedly provided additional motivation to liberate himself by escaping to Ohio where he reflected on the most remarkable years of his life in his memoir, A Colored Man Round the World (1858), dedicated to his dear enslaved mother in need of rescue.
Whether slave, freedman, artist, writer, entertainer, social activist, adventurer, scholar or tourist, for over a century, Black sojourners – visitors who stayed temporarily as opposed to expatriates who became permanent residents – who traversed Europe invariably appreciated the unloading of a great burden. Powerless to defend against daily humiliations, insults, and physical abuse that could happen in an instance owing to the whim of malicious whites Americans of every age and social class, they informed and encouraged their fellows fortunate enough to take advantage of perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to exhale a rush of negative pent-up emotions.
Unsurprising, the earliest Blacks who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from America to destinations in Europe were seamen, comprised of both runaways and free men who enjoyed considerably more social equality aboard ships than what they could ever expect on land. White Americans reported seeing them roaming streets in ports cities from Liverpool to Lisbon to Marseille.
The tiny group of Blacks who went abroad prior to the American Civil War (1861-1865) typically accompanied their master or employer, the most publicized example being that of storied Virginians Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. In 1784, Jefferson, then American envoy to France (later U.S. President) summoned several of his slaves to join him in Paris, including 15-year-old slave girl Sally Hemings and her brother, Madison. Historians generally agree that Jefferson began sexual relations – some declare it rape – with Hemings likely before returning to Monticello. Hemings might have known that during her 26-month service in France she was legally a free person and could have petitioned to remain there but strong familial ties and Jefferson’s promise to free her children upon their reaching age 21 persuaded her to leave. Madison arrived back in the slave quarters as an expert chef trained in French cookery, while Sally arrived visibly pregnant with Jefferson’s child.
Harriet Jacobs, a particularly desperate but resourceful woman in North Carolina, escaped from her master who was her relentless sexual harasser. She recounted her past trials and the first of her three journeys to England in 1845 in her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), a classic of the slave narrative genre, wherein she demonstrated how the absence of blatant racism there helped to fortify her Christian faith.
Striding through the door of the St. Petersburg residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia in 1814 was a Black man known to history only as ‘Nelson’, a former manservant of the ambassador but now an expatriate in the capital city. Dressed in “splendid Moorish dress,” standard attire for a man of African descent on the palace staff of Czar Alexander I, he had returned for another friendly visit with his former friend and employer, future U.S. President John Quincy Adams. A decade later Nancy Gardner Prince, the wife of another Black palace staffer, followed her husband and commenced an extended stay in Russia that saw her thrive as businesswoman and a promoter of charities.
Mainly inspired by British moralists and politicians of conscience in the late 1770s, abolitionism gained momentum in the early 1800s and became a formidable movement by mid-century. Numerous Blacks, some of them runaway slaves, furthered the cause (among them Moses Roper, John Sella Martin, Ellen and William Craft, Samuel Ringgold Ward, and Henry ‘Box’ Brown who schemed to have himself ‘mailed’ from Virginia to freedom in Pennsylvania). Sent to Europe to raise awareness and support for abolition, they were financed by organizations and private individuals like author-abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, convinced that testimonials based on lived experiences and stirring speeches to foreign audiences would prove compelling and intensify anti-slavery sentiment. One of the first free-born Black abolitionists was the wealthiest person of colour of his era, merchant-sea captain Paul Cuffe, a Quaker who sailed to Britain in 1811 mainly seeking to advance the establishment of a viable colony for African Americans in Sierra Leone, Africa. Cuffe was of the opinion that colonists there would be better positioned to check the proponents of slavery.
Another of the Black abolitionists from Massachusetts sent across the pond in 1840 was Charles Lenox Remond, who immediately noticed a degree of racial tolerance in Britain he was wholly unaccustomed to. He commented in a speech to an assembly of Americans: “. . .the treatment to which colored Americans are exposed in their own country finds a counterpart in no other; and I am free to declare that, in the course of nineteen months’ traveling in England, Ireland, and Scotland, I was received, treated and recognized, in public and private society, without any regard to my complexion. From the moment I left the American packet ship in Liverpool, up to the moment I came in contact with it again, I was never reminded of my complexion . . .”
The two most prominent African Americans on the abolition rally circuit were former slaves William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass, both making multiple trips crisscrossing Europe in the role of both social activist and tourist. Wells authored the rather curious but, critically admired travelog Three Years in Europe; or, Places I have Seen and People I have Met (1852). William Lloyd Garrison, the leading white American abolitionist editor hailed it “an astounding anomaly in the literature of the world.”
Douglass, the brilliant orator-author and towering Black leader of the century who President Abraham Lincoln valued as a friend and advisor, on his voyage to Britain and Ireland in 1845 narrowly avoided being thrown overboard by some incensed white American upset about his conversations with fellow passengers deploring slavery. Sailing home from his third trip to Europe, he mused: “I could but congratulate myself that born as I was a slave marked for a life under the lash in the cornfield that was abroad and free and privileged to see these distant lands so full of historical interest and which those of the most highly favored by fortune are permitted to visit I find myself much at ease on this steamer.” Technically a runaway slave when he made his first trip abroad, he was certain that with the help of foreign abolitionists he could have relocated permanently, but this was never really an option. He explained: “I had a duty to perform and that was to labor and suffer with the oppressed in my native land.”
“I am free!” – James McCune Smith, physician, 1832
The roadblocks for Blacks wanting to leave America were nearly insurmountable in the antebellum period, largely due to the fact they were not considered full citizens who warranted a passport or their government’s protective shield, so some slipped away without formal authorisation.
Though they were not as capable of moving crowds with dramatic, affecting oratory, another group of Black sojourners nonetheless served the purpose of abolitionists glad to substantiate the intellectual and artistic competence and potential of 4 million dehumanized slaves.
Thanks to the generosity of white benefactors who recognized his abilities, New York ex-slave James McCune Smith, having been denied entrance to medical schools, among them Columbia University, on account of race, could not contain his exhilaration on landing in Liverpool in 1832. Alone on a peaceful stroll along the city’s waterfront he blurted out, “I am free!” Five years later he graduated from the University of Glasgow, thus becoming the first African American to earn a medical degree (today the university’s The James McCune Smith Learning Hub commemorates his achievement). Also a student in Britain in the pre-war years was Episcopalian priest Alexander Crummell who, having been blocked from admission to the seminary of his choice and excluded from participation in the Pennsylvania diocesan convention, proceeded to become the first Black to graduate from Queens’ College, Cambridge in 1853.
“My trip to Europe has to some extent enabled me to judge of my own talent,” wrote New York’s superlative landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson in 1864. Like their white counterparts, a number of African American artists realized the advantage of perfecting their craft in Europe, starting with Duncanson whose travels there to study works of the Old Masters were paid for by abolitionists and others. His Homeric landscape ‘Land of the Lotus Eaters’ (1861) won the approbation of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Humourist Mark Twain wrote a letter of introduction to facilitate Connecticut still life painter Charles Ethan Porter’s three-year sojourn abroad in the early 1880s, first in London then in Paris where he studied at the French National Academy for Decorative Arts and Académie. In a letter to Twain in 1883 he voiced something that deeply concerned him and other Black sojourners and expatriates:
“I am aware that there are a goodly number of my Hartford friends and others who are anxious to see how the colored artist will make out. But this is not the motive which impresses me. There is something of more importance, the colored people – my people – as a race I am interested in, and my success will only add to others who have already shown wherein they are capable the same as other men.”
Despite having prearranged a reservation, after setting foot in Paris in 1899 sculptor Meta Fuller was refused lodging at the white-operated American Women’s Club. Taken under the wing of Black expatriate painter Henry O. Tanner, she studied at Académie Colarossi and École des Beaux-Arts, was a protégé of the incomparable August Rodin, and exhibited two of her works at the Paris Salon. But when she returned home in Philadelphia where her race was an existential disability she was roundly snubbed by the city’s artistic community. Similarly, composer-violinist Will Marion Cook’s European triumphs – two years of training at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik were under Joseph Joachim, the most revered violinist of the century – seemed almost for naught. Frederick Douglass had assisted a fundraiser to send him to Europe but when Cook returned to the United States in 1890, despite his attainments overseas, he had to settle for giving private lessons exclusively to Blacks.
“I am entirely white!”—Paul Laurence Dunbar, poet-novelist, 1897
Quite a few more influential Blacks appeared in Europe in the 1890s through the first decade of the 20th century. Having graduated from Oberlin College, Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African American females to earn a college degree and founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, was there from 1888 to 1890 to hone her language skills. But something unexpected occurred. Something that would have been illegal if attempted in most American states. A handsome German (‘Herr von D’) in Berlin proposed marriage. She recalled:
“He stopped on the street abruptly and was transfixed to the spot. I am sure if I had built a steam engine before his eyes, he could not have been more astonished, not to say shocked, than he was when he heard me quote a line of Greek… there is no doubt that he had learned all about the race prejudice of which I was the victim in my own land. His admiration and his sympathy with me soon ripened into affection and he asked me to marry him. . . If I had been white, I might have married him. I admired him very much. He was a man of high intellectual attainments, had lofty ideals, was good-looking and agreeable, and seemed genuinely fond of me…. I feared I would not be happy as an exile in a foreign land.”
W. E. B. Du Bois, the first to be awarded a Ph.D. at Harvard University and a co-establisher of the NAACP, found himself in nearly the same circumstance as Terrell while studying at the University of Berlin in 1892, having love affairs with two fräuleins, one of whom asked him to consider marriage. Had he been caught romancing white women in any southern state in the U.S. in 1892 he would have been promptly lynched. Looking back on his student days in Berlin, he admitted being there altered his assumptions about whites generally. “Germany was an extraordinary experience…. I began to believe white people were human.” He continued:
“I found myself on the outside of the American world, looking in… (German students and professors) did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world; particularly, the part of the world whence I came.”
On his journey home Du Bois evinced anxiety about what awaited him. He paused to write: “As a student in Germany I built great castles in Spain and lived therein. I dreamed and loved, and wandered and sang. Then after two long years I dropped suddenly into Nigger-hating America.”
Unaccustomed to having service personnel like waiters, porters, and maids show courtesy and deference to him, prolific poet-novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar, once rated the most popular poet in America, sent a letter from London to a friend in 1897 in which he facetiously exclaimed: “I am entirely white.” Far away from home, other notable Blacks in this period could also appreciate release from the condition Du Bois famously termed ’double consciousness’. Anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells toured the British Isles in 1893; scholar-activist Anna J. Cooper toured England, France, and Italy in 1900; and Wilberforce University president William S. Scarborough was in London in 1901. Alain Locke, the first Black Rhodes Scholar, was determined to outshine those southern Anglo-American recipients at Oxford University who felt his mere presence there somehow tarnished their own triumph. He was painfully aware of folks back home desperately wanting him to succeed, including his mother who was not at all subtle about her expectations, writing to him in 1907: “You cannot afford to fail as the first and only one of your race – and more than all – for my sake – because I have my heart and soul fixed on it.”
The goal-driven sojourn that stood alone in its ambition and scope was the 1910 project of Booker T. Washington, the wizard of Tuskegee Institute and the premier Black leader of his time. Reassured that a break from strenuous work would best serve the school, he envisioned going to foreign countries to study their working and lower classes, the objective being to observe what, if anything, had been done to improve the lot of the wretched Europeans. He hoped to apply whatever lessons he learned to uplift poor rural Blacks in the American South. Teamed with a respected white sociologist, he visited distressed urban and rural communities throughout Europe. In the book that resulted, The Man Farthest Down (1912), he described poverty and ethnic hatred tantamount to or worse than anything he had witnessed in the South. Especially dismayed at human suffering in Sicily, he wrote:
“I saw . . . women sleeping, like tired animals, in the city streets; I saw others living in a single room with their cattle; at one time I entered a little cottage and saw the whole family eating out of a single bowl. In Sicily I found peasants living in a condition of dirt, poverty, and squalor almost beyond description.”
Instead of finding any consolation or relief that he had discovered so many Europeans as impoverished and exploited as southern Blacks, Washington found a beacon of hope for Blacks provided they adhered to his plan for gradual reform achieved through “practical education” and racial accommodation to allay the fears of whites who felt threatened by any whiff of progress toward racial parity. To doubters he peremptorily issued this reminder: “. . . it is important that those who are inclined to be discouraged about the Negro in the South should know that his case is by no means as hopeless as that of some others. The Negro is not the man farthest down.”
“One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be Black…So I left. – Josephine Baker, entertainer
Post-World War I the traffic of Blacks to Europe increased to the extent that going there resembled a rite of passage for those who comprised the Black aristocracy, i.e., relatively affluent persons, members of the literati, and top shelf artists and entertainers. At the start of the fabulously creative Harlem Renaissance, these latest sojourners weren’t tasked with so grand a mission as advocating for the emancipation of slaves or to pose as exemplars of an entire race. Their visits were more personal and geared toward self-improvement. Understandably, they were less prone than white Americans to exalt Europe as a spiritual ancestral and cultural motherland unconnected to the horrors of African enslavement and colonisation. There were a few who went and decided to stay permanently (e.g., Henry O. Tanner and Josephine Baker, the most celebrated expatriates) but there were many more who departed America uncertain when or if they would ever return, but did so eventually. The sojourners and expatriates during the interwar years propagated the jazz craze and introduced other manifestations of the Black aesthetic that found acceptance in every major city in Europe.
In the 1920s three literary giants of the Harlem Renaissance were in European capitals: Countee Cullen on a Guggenheim fellowship in France and studying at the Sorbonne; Jessie Redmon Fauset attending sessions of the 2nd Pan- African Congress in London, Brussels, and Paris; and Claude McKay in Germany and elsewhere. McKay recollected his time in Berlin and Hamburg: “Everywhere I had been treated much better and with altogether more consideration than in America… Personally I had not sensed any feeling against me as a Negro in the fall of 1923… everywhere in hotels, cafés, dancing halls, restaurants and trains, on the river boats and in the streets, I met with no feeling of hostility.” It was testimonies like this that ensured more Blacks would make the trip there.
Artists Palmer Hayden, with assistance from The Harmon Foundation, was in France; Hale Woodruff, remembered for his murals, studied at the Académie Scandinave, the Académie Moderne and, inspired by African art, began collecting it in Paris; Augusta Savage, rejected by white American committee members to benefit from a summer art program abroad because of her race, turned to a French mentor and the Julius Rosenwald Fund for support; and Laura Wheeler-Waring, on her second European tour restarted her training, this time at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiére, and exhibited her paintings at Parisian galleries. Water-colourist and graphic artist Gwendolyn Bennett was at the Sorbonnne, the École du Panthéon, and the Académie Julian; and Jazz Age modernist Archibald Motley closed out the decade wandering through the Louvre contemplating works by renowned artists that would impact his portraiture.
Aside from the rare opportunity to advance their careers through France’s unrivalled art academies and artists it’s easy to see why, more so than in any other foreign country, a select group of Black Americans felt liberated in France and why they congregated in Paris. But why were the French so welcoming? A book reviewer summarized Sorbonne professor Michel Fabre’s explanation thusly: “. . . acceptance and appreciation of Black Americans were based largely of French distaste both for white Americans, whom the French found egotistical, and for Black Africans, with whom the French had a bitter ‘mutual colonial history.’” The European appetite and demand for what they perceived as exotic and primitive, epitomized to them in Black-originated music and dance sweeping the continent, seemed insatiable. Jazz musician and band leader Sidney Bechet, who performed as far away as Kiev and Crimea in the Soviet Union, attest to the favourable reception of Black entertainments. Not to be overlooked, there were some who went to Europe in the 1920s to enhance their mastery of the classical form, most notably composer-musician Nathaniel Dett and baritone Roland Hayes.
“I don’t care how you get here, just get here if you can” – Oleta Adams, line from the song Get Here
Like pilgrims drawn to a sacred shrine, at the turn of the century Black sojourners dutifully showed up in Croydon, South London, at the gracious home of British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, then the most illustrious Afro-European; among the many were concert violinists Clarence Cameron White and Kemper Harreld, choir leader Frederick Loudin, writer and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, author-attorney Charles Waddell Chesnutt, and the aforementioned Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alexander Crummell, and Alain Locke. But Paris remained the destination of choice in the decade of the ‘30s. If ever it could be said there was a golden age of African American sojourners and expatriates in Europe it was then. Notables casually encountered one another on the street, in cabarets, parks, at parties, and in living rooms. It was often a case of reconnecting with friends in a place far from home.
Counted among visual artists one could look up in Paris were Mailou Jones who expressed gratitude to France for fostering an environment that let her blossom as an artist; pioneering Africanist Aaron Douglas studying at L’Academie Scandinave; and Rex Goreleigh before moving on to Germany and Finland, admitting he “stuck out like a sore thumb” but otherwise delighted in an atmosphere of personal freedom never chanced upon in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Contralto Marion Anderson performed in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, et al.; baritone Aubrey W. Pankey trained in Vienna and studied at Neues Wiener Konservatorium; and bass-baritone and political activist Paul Robeson made a big splash in British cinema and sang to wounded Republican soldiers in Spain. But decidedly, what distinguished the ‘30s was the presence of high-profile writers and scholars.
Novelist Nella Larsen, the first Black female to bag a Guggenheim Fellowship, started the decade in France and Spain sidestepping a failed marriage and a career-ending charge of plagiarism. Her daydream of a pleasant and productive six-month escape from problems waiting back home evanesced. Langston Hughes’s first European getaway as a vagabond nearly ended in tragedy in 1922 in Genoa, Italy, when fascist Black Shirts, believing he had disparaged Mussolini, chased after him along the waterfront of that city. Ten years later after a stay in Germany a better situated Hughes gave a toast to its citizens:
“In Berlin, Negroes were received at hotels without question, so we settled down to await visas. We ate in any restaurant we could afford. In the German capital, I could not help remember my recent experiences in the South with restaurants that served whites only, and autocamps all across America that refused to rent me a cabin in which to sleep.”
“We saw Naples, free, lovely and dirty… ” – W. E. B. Du Bois
Of course, not all African American-European interactions were civil or benign. When W. E. B. Du Bois arrived to admire the ruins of the Roman Forum he was assaulted by rock-throwing young toughs, not because he was Black but because they mistook him for a hated Frenchman. In an interview in the Paris Tribune Jessie Fauset made it clear she discounted everyday superficial contacts with Frenchmen for she knew cosmopolitan Paris was very different from xenophobic provincial towns. She was, in fact, disdainful of places far away from the metropolis like the port city of Brest: She sniffed: “… (it is the) typical, stupid, monotonous French town with picturesquely irregular pavements, narrow, tortuous little streets, dark, nestling little shops and the inevitable public square.”
Another detractor of the French mystique was future Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche. In a letter to his wife in 1933 he confided: “Paris is truly a beautiful city, but I don’t care much for it or for the French . . . French food is terrible – I’ve had indigestion and mild dysentery ever since I’ve been here . . . The French are very ordinary looking people . . . You will be particularly disappointed with the appearance of French women, even in the fashionable districts.”
The most terrifying misadventures we are aware of are those endured by graduate students Milton Wright and Reed Peggram. In the summer of 1932, Wright, studying at the University of Heidelberg, was one of the handful of Blacks who had gone abroad seeking a rigorous education in a more hospitable setting vis-à-vis any predominately white American campus. An outgoing gregarious chap, he was overheard joking to a group of friends that he would like to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Coincidentally, Hitler was relaxing at a local hotel. Hearing of the flippant threat, Hitler had his SS guards deliver Wright to the hotel for a surprisingly cordial but bizarre one-way ‘conversation’. Four hours later, after listening to the soon-to-be German Chancellor matter-of-factly vilify Blacks as “a third-class people, cowardly slaves, and mere imitators of superior races,” confounded and shaken, Wright was given a complimentary photo of Der Führer and released. He is the only person of African descent know to have spoken directly to or had a face-to-face meeting with Hitler. Wright became a professor and administrator for many years at Wilberforce University in Ohio.
Peggram’s protracted ordeal was truly life threatening. A magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University, he had gone to the Sorbonne in 1938 to work toward his doctorate in linguistics. When World War II erupted, he was adamant about not leaving France without his Danish boyfriend. Trapped in Nazi-occupied France, both wound up together in concentrations camps in Italy until they escaped in 1945. Returning home to Dorchester, Massachusetts, Peggram suffered a nervous breakdown, but recuperated and used his fluency in seven or eight languages to work as a teacher and translator.
“When he went away to Oxford he had this fantasy that James Baldwin and other Black intellectuals had when they went abroad, and that is they think they will be able to escape, once and for all, race.” – Jeffrey Stewart, author
In an interview concerning his book, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, that won him the 2018 National Book Award, author Jeffrey Stewart revealed that Locke ultimately failed to earn his degree at Oxford but kept up the pretence that he had. His dream of becoming a “diplomat, a cosmopolitan man of the world” shattered, he returned home and morphed into what used to be called a ‘race man’, champion of a worthy Black race. Locke and other Blacks were profoundly affected by their time in Europe. Consistently, they were impressed with being allowed more freedom to experiment and explore, became less fearful of interracial relations, were in close contact with leading scholars and preeminent artists, and were able to fine tune their talents and boost their professional standing in ways they could not have negotiated to the same degree in any American state. Small wonder quite a few initial sojourners made the rational decision to live the remainder of their lives as expatriates.
But for sojourners – their distinctly American outlook and mannerisms apparent wherever they travelled – an extended stay only intensified homesickness. They yearned to reunite with friends and loved ones left behind and refocus attention on building a career. Knowing full well they faced the same relentless racial segregation and discrimination, random and organized intimidation and violence they had briefly evaded while abroad, they returned ever confident in their abilities and reasonably optimistic about the future. Metaphorically, they strapped on their psychological armour, took a very deep breath, and resumed the fight for dignity and equality in America. These latter-day sojourners would still have to confront living behind a ‘veil’, as Du Bois described it – that incessant, traumatic, immovable thing which frustrates honest self-evaluation.
Writer-filmmaker Eddy L. Harris, himself an expatriate (or maybe an overstayed sojourner), sketched what all of those African Americans discussed here had in common. Thirty years ago, he wrote in his book, Native Stranger:
“I am American. And I am Black. I live and travel with two cultural passports, the one very much stamped with European culture and sensibilities… the other was issued from the uniquely Black experience… we are an American people, products of a new culture and defined by it.”