African Americans in Europe

Author: Terence Finnegan <>

Date: Fri, 23 Jun 1995 10:47:36 -0600

After reading Langston Hughes' poem and some of the ensuing discussion, it made me wonder about the lengths that some African Americans were and still are forced to go in this country to achieve their goals/dreams. Moving North is one route, but what about moving to other countries?

Recently I saw a short biography on the first African-American woman to get a pilots license (in the 30's?). Bessy ?. Because she could not find anyone to give her lessons in the US she traveled to France to receive lessons. This was true for a famous actress/cabaret singer who also gained great fame in the 20's and 30's by performing in France and, once famous, was only then welcomed by the performing community of this country. I'm sorry, but I can't remember either of their names.

I'm curious as to why the European community (namely France) was so open to African Americans at that time and, is it still? As a US citizen I had assumed racism towards African Americans be a worldwide Caucasian trait, but this make me wonder if this is primarily a Anglican/US issue. I know that that is a simplistic view, but I'm curious to know more about the acceptance of African Americans into other cultures.

Thank you,

Sarah DeMun

U. of Washington

Date: Mon, 26 Jun 1995 10:38:00 -0600

A comment on Sarah deMun's statement about the acceptance of African-Americans in France. It is my experience that the French are still very accepting of African-Americans. At least, this is the case with the ones I know. They are quick to criticize prejudice against blacks in this country but see no inconsistency in their prejudice against North Africans. Those I have talked to tell me their prejudice is justified because North Africans are Moslem and mistreat their women.

Eugene Berwanger



This is way off the Southern history base, but I have to respond.

You touched on a subject near and dear to my heart, namely living in France. I spent 1974-1976 in Paris, attending high school there for the first year, and have been back a couple times since, most recently in 1991.

I think you're referring to Josephine Baker (cabaret singer) below.

Elvin Jones, jazz drummer, lived near our apt. in Paris when I was there. Jazz artists (mostly African-American) have always been more respected in Europe than they are here, mainly because Europeans are more respectful of art and artists than Americans are, so James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Elvin Jones, Sidney Bechet, and others could expect a far more pleasant life there. Just last night I heard jazz saxophonist Steve Lacy in a documentary talking about feeling more welcome in Europe than in the U.S. A woman I knew who lived in France said they follow art the way Americans follow sports.

But, there wasn't a large Black population in France when I was there. There was a large Arab population, mostly poor, and many of the French I knew expressed racist sentiments against Arabs. Now there is a large Vietnamese refugee population in Paris, and there is some sentiment against them as well. In addition the National Front, a xenophobic anti-immigrant political party, has fared very well in recent elections there, especially in the Southern cities where many Algerians have settled.

There are two lessons I can draw from these observations. One is that the way the French accept talented individuals can't be taken as a blanket lack of racism. The other is that given enough friction, an influx of refugees from Rwanda or elsewhere in Africa, the French would react like a lot of Americans do to Haitian refugees.

Also, I'm not aware of any countries where more than one ethnic or racial group live that lacks tension or conflicts. I actually came back to the U.S. feeling we do well in a lot of ways when it comes to racial co-existence.

Steven Hirsch



Date: Tue, 27 Jun 1995 13:27:23 -0600

The French are no more or less racist than any other people. Once that portion of their population of African descent gets past 8% or so, I'm willing to bet they'll "suddenly" reveal themselves as no different than white Americans. The key lies in whether they are willing to institutionalize their racism, as we did.

Howard Smead

University of Maryland



Military service is one important link between France and African Americans in the United States. This cultural intersection has roots in the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, formed in 1916 with white officers and black rank-and-file soldiers, a majority of whom were from Harlem. After being mustered into the general army, the 15th was sent to France in December, 1917. In France, the regiment was renamed the 369th Infantry, and was assigned to the 161st Division of the French Army. Because they fought under French command, rather than with the US forces, the soldiers of the 369th saw combat duty, and performed with courage and skill. For its part in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, the regiment and more than 150 of its men received the Croix de Guerre from the French government. (It should be noted that the United States government went to some lengths to prevent the memorialization and recognition of these men.) Some of the veterans chose to stay in France, becoming integral elements of the African-American expatriate community in Paris during the 1920s. For more on the "Harlem Hellfighters," see Jervis Anderson's *This Was Harlem 1900-1950*, and David Levering Lewis, *When Harlem Was In Vogue*.

Adam Rothman

Columbia University

Date: Wed, 28 Jun 1995 13:42:58 -0600

The following books will provide good to excellent insights into the history of African Americans in Europe. I list them seriatim as I recall them: Allison Blakely, RUSSIA AND THE NEGRO: BLACKS IN RUSSIAN HISTORY AND THOUGHT, as well as his BLACKS IN THE DUTCH WORLD: tHE EVOLUTION OF RACIAL IMAGERY IN A MODERN WORLD; Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand, eds., BLACKS AND GERMAN CULTURE; Michel Fabre, FROM HARLEM TO PARIS: BLACK AMERICAN WRITERS IN FRANCE, 1840-1980, as well as his UNFINISHED QUEST OF RICHARD WRIGHT; Hans Werner Debrunner, PRESENCE AND PRESTIGE: AFRICANS IN EUROPE; Earnest Dunbar, ed., THE BLACK EXPATRIATES: A STUDY OF AMERICAN NEGROES IN EXILE; John Bainbridge, ANOTHER WAY OF LIVING: A GALLERY OF AMERICANS WHO CHOOSE TO LIVE IN EUROPE; Graham Irwin, ed., AFRICANS ABROAD: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY OF THE BLACK DIASPORA IN ASIA, LATIN AMERICA, AND THE CARIBBEAN DURING THE AGE OF SLAVERY. This is a sketchy list. There are many other texts that should be added to this list.

James M. Washington

Professor of Church History

Union Theological Seminary (NY)


I generally avoid reducing everything to economics, but I think the issue of economic competition is a serious factor here. Are the French more accepting of African Americans because, for the most part, they go back to America and those who stay are few enough that they do not present significant economic competition? I would guess this has something to do with. The idea that North Africans in France are Muslim and therefore mistreat their women seems to me to be a cover-up for the fact that most of the North Africans who move to France do so to stay and to improve their economic situtation. In the eyes of the French, then, they are taking jobs from French people. Religious hostility may have something to do with it, certainly, but there seems to be a lot more to it. The very opening interview that Theodore Zeldon presents in his _Intimate History of Humanity_ certainly indicates that economics are a factor. I venture that if a significant number of African Americans moved to France and stayed (and I don't mean a few ex-patriot intellectuals like James Baldwin who aren't competing for low- medium paying jobs) I suspect that they would find themselves quite unwelcome.

This, of course, is not meant in anyway to justify racism or discrimination on either side of the Atlantic, but simply to suggest a possible explaination for the situation revealed in recent postings.

Alan Willis

Syracuse University


Date: Thu, 29 Jun 1995 16:35:04 -0600

The discussion on African Americans in France could be pushed even farther back in time. With reference to the appreciation of musicians in France, I have found at least one instance in my own dissertation research where African musicians born in Europe were appreciated in both France and Germany from the time of Napoleon until at least 1830. One example is Francois, free Black, who worked in a German-and-African band for one of Napoleon's regiments that fought in Russia. After 1815, this man became a court musician and, as he says, "a gentleman." Later, in life, he visited Philadelphia, fell in love, and stayed in America. But he did not stay because he really liked it here, or because he had more freedom or appreciation. If his wife did not insist so about staying in America, Francois would have left not for France but for "Germany" where he found the most freedom at the time.

On slavery in France before the Napoleonic wars, see: Sue Peabody, "'There are no slaves in France': Law, Culture, and Society in Early Modern France, 1685-1789," Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Iowa, 1993.

Lauren Ann Kattner

University of Texas at Austin