Robert Sengstacke Abbott was a newspaper publisher and activist best known for founding The Chicago Defender, which he used to draw attention to the horrors of the Jim Crow South and encourage African Americans to move to the North. In 1929 he undertook a European tour and serialized his travelogue in his newspaper.
In the passages excerpted here, Abbott writes about Germans’ curiosity as well as their lack of race prejudice, which was a common trope used by African-American writers in Europe hoping to draw a stark contrast with the overt and violent racism of the United States. He describes his visit to a “people show” (Völkerschau) of East Africans in Hamburg’s Hagenbeck Zoo, making a particular note that white German women were interested in the Black men. He was particularly impressed with statues of Black figures at Sanssouci, remarking that such a thing was unimaginable in the United States, and was surprised by the novelty of a Black mannequin in a clothing store dressed in modern fashions.
He also writes at length about his encounters with the “colored people” living in Berlin, including a number of Americans as well as Bebe Mpessa (Louis Brody) and other Black Germans. While he reports that Black Germans had trouble finding jobs, he does not let this undermine his central argument about the lack of prejudice in Germany.
MY TRIP ABROAD BY ROBERT S. ABBOTT –
VII – SOJOURNING IN GERMANY
When we arrived in Bremen, the Bremen had just arrived after beating the world’s record. Flags were flying and all were rejoicing.
But it seemed to me, from the manner in which I was looked at in the streets, that it was I who was the center of attention. Colored people are few in this region, and during my stay in Bremen I never saw a single one, except my cousin.
I was gazed at in Germany more than in any other country, but let me say here that it was a different gaze from that with which I was regarded in America or if I had gone into some remote village in the North. It was different from that, for instance, with which the Americans greeted us when we walked into the dining room of our hotel at Bremen.
In short, the gaze of the German people was full of friendly curiosity. They were eager to converse with me and whenever I addressed anyone I met with the finest courtesy. So I didn’t mind a bit their gazing at me. I expect black people would do the same if a lone white man entered their village in Africa or anywhere else. The German people, I found, are very easy to make friends with.
Of this I am certain. Had I met the German people before the war my views regarding them then would have been different. They were certainly far finer to me than the white southerners, my own country men for whom we all fought. The German people were spoken of as being very brutal during the war, but I will have to be shown where they can equal the brutality, day in and day out, of the southern white man.
The town of Bremen is more than 1,200 years old, and its foundation goes back to prehistoric times. The principal sights are the docks, though the big ships stop at Bremerhaven, about 30 miles away; the statue of Roland, renowned knightly figure; the Vinegar House, a very quaint building put up in 1618; the Seven Sluggards in the courtyard of the Paula-Becker-Modersohn house; the St. Petri cathedral, and the Rathaus (pronounced rat house) or town hall. An alderman or town councilor in Germany is called “a rat.”
Near the cathedral is what is known as the Bleikeller or lead cellar. In this cellar are seven mummified corpses, among them that of a Swedish general, a Swedish countess and a carpenter, the last being nearly 500 years old. All are petrified and it is said that the air of the cellar has some peculiar property for petrifying corpses. The corpses lie open in coffins and when struck make a resounding noise.
In the Rathskeller
There is also the renowned Rathskeller (cellar of the city hall) with rare old wines sorted in huge casks. This rathskeller is beautifully decorated and contains many valuable pictures. There are several cellars, among them the Rose Cellar and the Cellar of the Apostles. The suburbs of Bremen are also very beautiful with many fine homes.
There are many quaint eating houses and fine cafes. Most of the German cafes have music at night, and the Germans struck me as being a very merry people. They know how to laugh and to enjoy themselves.
From Bremen we went to Hamburg. Here among other places we visited the Hagenback zoo, which compares favorably with the Bronx park zoo. Among the animals perhaps the most interesting and amusing comical sight was an enormous walrus. he was just one great mass of fat and with a face that only a mother could love, but he could move over the ground or turn around to get fish in a most astonishing manner.
We also saw a huge chimpanzee who kept turning somersaults, playing with straw, and laying around as if he were certainly bored with life. The herd of elephants was one of the largest I have seen.
In the park was also a village containing some fifty Negroes, all from East Africa. It was supposed to represent life in that part of Africa and the people moved about their daily tasks, cooking, making ornaments, carving etc. Some of the young girls were very good looking, and had their hair done up in innumerable rows of fine plaits. Most of them seemed as bored as the chimpanzee and wanted to get back home. They thought I was from the Soudan and did not know that Colored people lived in America. I noted that some of the white girls were very much interested in the black men and were engaging them in conversation.
Most of all of the amusements of Hamburg seemed to center at the Reeperbahn, an avenue almost in the heart of the city. Great crowds are to be seen here at night. In a park in this neighborhood also stands a colossal stone figure of Bismarck, the iron chancellor, the real founder of the German empire.
Hamburg is one of the great ports of the world, and the ships of many nations may be seen on its long water-front as well as sailors of all races.
Where They Live
Many of them are Negroes, mostly Africans, and are chiefly to be found along Bernhard Nochtstrasse not far from the ferry. They meet mostly at the Indisch bar, run by H. Singh at No. 6a, this same street.
Some few Negroes have also made their homes here and have children by the German women. We met one bright Colored lad, born in Hamburg who had been to sea and had visited America. He was now studying engineering.
Here and there on the Reeperbahn a lone Negro may be seen playing in a jazz band among white musicians. One of these was John Gerrold, who said that he lived in Harlem.
While on the Reeperbahn I got stung. Seeing a rather attractive theater we went in after paying the admission fee. The interior was arranged like a restaurant, and when we entered we noticed that those who had arrived before us were all hunched in seats either close to the stage or far from it. The center was quite deserted and noting some good seats there we steered for them.
When we sat down the waiter wanted to know what we wished to drink. Neither of us was particular about having anything, we had come to see the show, but noting that everybody else had a glass of beer before him or her, we ordered beer. “Oh, no,” said the waiter, turning up his nose, “you must order wine. You’re sitting in the wine seats.” So now we understood why those who came before us had been so considerate as to leave us the choice seats.
Well, there seemed nothing else for us to do but to order wine, although neither of us cared for it. We ordered a bottle. In the meantime couples were dancing on the floor and we inquired what time the show would begin. Then we learned that the features worth seeing would not come on until 2 a.m. It was then 10. We sat around a while longer, watching the dancing, our wine almost untouched before us, when the waiter brought us the bill.
Now in Europe a waiter never brings the bill unless asked to, so this was a gentle hint that we should drink up and get another. The show was three hours away. That meant “three more bottles at 53 each. We left. Next morning I saw the same wine on sale at 35 cents a bottle. We had been sitting in the seats reserved for Americans with more money than brains.
An interesting invention I saw in Hamburg was an elevator that ran of itself. All you had to do was to jump on and get off at your floor. It was something like a moving stairway, running on both sides, one for up, the other for down. You could stay on if you liked and it would take you right up, over the top, and down again. It moved sufficiently slow to permit jumping on or off without danger.
From Hamburg we went to Berlin, and I must confess that I felt quite a thrill at being in the German capital. Little did I think, twenty-five years ago, when I was workign so hard in America, not knowing where the next dollar was to come from, that I would ever be taking a trip to Europe. At that time London, Berlin and Paris all meant only so many words to me on paper. I can only say that the man who wishes anything should work toward getting it. America, in spite of all its prejudices, is full of opportunity. What one man has done, others can also do if they have the determination and will use the energy. Merely wishing for things and then sitting down and being jealous of others who get them by working gets us nowhere.
Besides there is a peculiar joy in winning things for one’s self, I know that I have enjoyed my trip much more because it is the result of long years of hard struggle than if some one had paid my way.
Berlin is a magnificent city, and reminds one of a well-kept, orderly home as only Germans know how to keep.
Indeed this fact is true of all Germany, even the smallest village I saw. Everything is kept up and nothing allowed to run down. The more I saw of the German people and their way of doing things the stronger grew my admiration for them. We Colored people need to get some of their admirable ways of doing things in our blood.
The city has a population of 4.000.000, and it is said to cover a greater area than any other. But the same has been said of Chicago and Philadelphia. It is unlike most European cities in that it shows some attempt at planning. The streets run in squares and it is not so easy to get lost as it is in Paris, London, Amsterdam or almost any other European city one may name.
However, Berlin wasn’t always like this, and we were shown the narrow winding street of Am Krog, which was left as a sample of what the old city was like. I understand that it was the last kaiser who was responsible for the improvement. By all accounts he did a lot of good for the country, and I am inclined to think that the German people who knew him love him yet.
Berlin is the city of fine monuments and massive buildings. Among the most notable of these monuments are the Brandenburger gate at the north entrance to Unter den Linden, the city’s most noted thoroughfare: that of the Emperor William I, which is very striking; the Column of Victory, made of cannon captured from the French in 1871, and the statue of Bismarck, both of which are in front of the Reichstag or house of parliament. There are also statues to noted writers and musicians like Goethe, Wagner, Beethoven, Lessing and Mozart.
At the southern end of the Unter den Linden are to be found most of the museums, as well as the kaiser’s palace, the cathedral where the kaiser used to worship and the palace of the crown prince, now used as a museum.
The kaiser’s palace is a four-story structure so immense that it is almost capable of housing an army. It is 630 feet long by 351, and has some 700 apartments. At the entrance is a massive doorway surmounted by a crown. Entrance fee is two marks or 50 cents.
Inside the great palace is a gorgeous scene of great banqueting halls, silken hangings, wonderful carpets, inlaid floors, costly paintings, indeed just such a place as one figureds a palace ought to be. Gone, however, are all the great kings and nobles who used to wine and dine at these tables. In their place now are those who can pay the admission fee.
At the north end of the city, immediately on passing through the Brandenburger gate, is a very large and beautiful park, known as the Tiergarten. One of the most remarkable sights in this park is the Sieges-Allee, or Avenue of Victory. It is a splendid promenade along which there are statues of 32 Prussian monarchs, a gift of the ex-kaiser to the German people. These statues are larer than life size, an have semi-circular seats.
The Unter den Linden is a wide thoroughfare with an avenue of trees in the center and streets on both sides. This and Friedrichstrasse are the principal shopping districts.
There are street cards, double-deck busses and subways. The fare is 20 pfennings, or four cents and one may transfer from one to the other. The cars are much better kept than in New York city. The subway is fine and spacious, the cars are handsome, and the seats are comfortable, being of real leather.
The cost of living is high in Germany as compared with the rest of the continent. It is much higher than in France and a trifle lower than in America. A cup of coffee at a lunch-room costs 7 cents; beer, six cents, and a sandwich, eight cents. The rate of wages is lower than in America, a day laborer getting about $1.25 a day.
Taxes are high, and in addition each worker must pay one-tenth of his wages as a direct tax. This sum is deduced from his pay by the employer. A part of it goes to paying for the war, and the rest is for insurance against illness and unemployment.
One thing that struck me in Germany was that although it was summertime and very hot, the children were going to school. On inquiry I learned that the German Child gets only one month vacation in the summer, and a few days here and there during the year. The rate of illiteracy in Germany is less than one-half of one percent, and no wonder. They are hard working, very industrious and thorough people, and there is no doubt about it. They take pains to develop themselves and to master things and as such have my fullest admiration.
Next to Paris, Berlin has more Americans than any other city, and it is a common thing to hear English on the Unter den Linden. However, I met with no color-prejudice nor heard of any. When the Americans objected to my being at the hotel, the proprietor told them that if they didn’t like it surely they knew what to do.
Another thing that struck me in Berlin were the cafes, dance halls and night clubs. Paris itself simply has nothing like them. We visited the Vaterland and the Cafe de Berlin, immense places with floor after floor of cafes and dance halls as well as the Palast Am Zoo, The Casanova, Ambassador’s, Bamborino and others. Most of these places are in the Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s Montmartre.
In the next week’s articles I will tel something about the Negro in Berlin.
MY TRIP ABROAD – THE NEGRO IN BERLIN
There are not many Colored people in Berlin; perhaps not over 250. The majority of them are Africans from the Cameroons, former German possessions, or were born in Germany of African fathers and white mothers.
There are few Colored Americans. Among them are Frank Bascombe, 20 W. 99th St., New York city, who has been there for four years studying music at the academy and under private teachers. Mr. Bascombe speaks German fluently, knows the city well and was kind enough to show me about a good deal. He says that he is returning to America in November. Also Jimmy Leggett, middleweight boxer, who has beaten eight other boxers. He has defeated fighters like Sybold, Shoeing Smith, Breitbetter and went into the heavyweight class as a result of his victory over Breitbetter and meeting Korner Samson, German champion, with whom he had a ten-round draw. He also fought Battling Siki to a draw, as well as Max Schmelling, contender for world’s heavy-weight honors, and defeated Weigert for the middleweight championship of Germany.
The German papers and magazines speak highly of him and call him “The Columbus of the Boxing Game,” for it is he who has perhaps done most to make boxing popular in Germany. He also was the trainer of Max Schmelling. Mr. Legget was born in North Carolina and reared in Philadelphia. He says that he likes Germany very much and plans returning to America for a trip shortly.
Another is George Vase, who is employed in the American consulate. Vase, who is a veteran of the Spanish-American war, came to Europe in 1906 in an eccentric song and dance act. He traveled nearly all over Europe as well as in Africa, and while in Germany was given his present post by Ambassador Gerard shortly before the war.
During the war he did good service in helping to get Americans out of the country, and when the United States declared war on Germany he went with the consular staff to Switzerland. He came back after the Germany revolution and has been at his post ever since. Mr. Vase has had many interesting experiences, not only in Germany but in other parts of Europe. He says that Negroes are no longer a novelty. They were when he first came to Germany.
Mr. Vase says that the kaiser is very fond of Colored people and that he had three Negro bandmasters as well as Colored bodyguards at Potsdam. We met one of those bodyguards and will speak of him later.
Mr. Vase thinks that German-Americans who came over in large numbers during the war brought much prejudice with them.
We also met Little Esther, the child artist, who comes from Chicago; her mother, Mrs. Jones, and her manager Mr. Garner. Little Esther had a six week engagement at the Winter Garden, Berlin’s finest vaudeville house, and was quite a success. There were also the teams of Bernice and Ken, who are making talking pictures with the UFA, with whom they have a contract.
Stars in Movies
I also heard of one Prof. Moses Leonard Fraser of New York City, who died in Berlin in 1925. Prof. Fraser owned several fine apartment houses there and had gone to Berlin from Paris in 1921, after completing his studies at the Sorbonne. He was found dead in his home at 31 Frobenstrase, asphyxiated by gas.
It is said that all his property had gone to the state, but on inquiring at the American consulate I learned that he had left a will. Whether this was in favor of his wife, Mrs. Eliza Turner, 1824 * St. N,W., Washington D.C, was not said.
Many of the Africans are employed in motion pictures. Among them is Herr Louis Brody, who has starred in several films, among them being “Homo Sum”, “Vengeancefi” [sic] and the “Mysteries of the Orient.” He has played with many of the leading actors and actresses, and the German and other European papers speak very highly of him. Herr Brody is also studying voice.
Herr Eque Bille has also starred in “The Mysteries of the Orient” and other plays. He served as a soldier during the war and is an architect by profession, being a graduate of a leading German university. His father, who was also born in the Cameroons, served as a captain during the war. Eque Bille played for a time with Josephine Baker in Vienna.
Among others are Victor Bell, impresario; David Dipongo, dancer; Otto Makube, musician; Joseph Boholle, carpenter, and Richard Dinn, music student.
Dr. Benjamin Ajayi-Young, who comes from Nigeria and is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, also lives in Berlin.
The kaiser as was said, took an interest in Colored people and had several around him. The bandmaster is his favorite regiment was a Negro named Sabor-el-Chor, who, I heard was a great attraction in Berlin. Another bandmaster was named Zambo. He fought during the war and is now living on a pension at Minden, Hanover.
Most of these Africans who were with the Kaiser have left Berlin, but we had the pleasure of meeting one of them, Karl Mambo, who lives in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Berlin. He was wounded during the war and is now on a pension. I was fortunate enough to get a picture of Herr Mambo.
One of the most interesting side trips that we had the pleasure of making from Berlin was a run to Potsdam, about 35 miles from Berlin. Here, situated on a high level overlooking the river Havel and at the north end of the Lange Brucke (long bridge) is the famous palace where the kaisers and emperors of Germany and the Austro-Hungary combine have lived and ruled for generations before the great was their power to an end. This palace, though still holding up it majestic head in all its grandiose, no longer houses royalty, for Germany, like many other European countries has become a republic.
The drive to Potsdam was one of the most exhilarating experiences of the whole trip. On the long thoroughfare that winds in and out between little valleys and now and then toiling on the banks of the Havel river, we sometimes struck 90 miles an hour. A striking feature of this drive was the fact that there were no traffic policemen to molest us. Upon inquiry I found that Germany has no speed laws – you can travel just as fast as your car can carry you, and no questions are asked! Germany is noted for its excellent roads, a practice instituted by the early Romans and followed by modern Germans. Wherever you care to travel you find perfectly laid out roads and beautifully kept highways stretching through the country.
Potsdam is interesting from many angles. It was here that Voltaire, the famous French philosopher, lived and wrote much of his treatise on government. Immediately west of the city proper is the palace of San Souci [sic], built by Frederick the Great. The palace is located in the San Souci park, which is noted for its historical buildings and its art palaces. San Souci is now a museum.
In the park at Potsdam we saw the statues of several Negroes who had served in different capacities with the different Kaisers, and on the bridge over the Spree, not far from the kaiser’s palace in Berlin, was a large statue of a Negro, used ornamentally. We Americans fought Germany to make the world safe for democracy, but think of a black man being used for such a purpose in the United States.
Most of the Berlin Negroes declared that they had difficulty in finding employment, though they declared that they met with no Color prejudice otherwise. Perhaps this may be explained by the fact that employment is scarce in Germany, there being at the present time nearly two million persons out of work.
In other race relations there seemed to be no prejudice, and whenever a Negro is seen with a woman she was invariably white. One moving picture actor told me that the Germans do not trouble about this and that one day a German said to him “You black men seem to have much better opportunities with the women than we have”.
This same man also said that he would not go so far as to say there was no color prejudice in Germany, but that the Germans respected intelligence and efficiency and that when a black man presented these he has a very good chance, sometimes even slightly better than a white had of making friends.
One of the things that struck me most in Germany was the great number of persons who were browning their skins. Some of them had exposed themselves in the sun until they were almost black. I later discovered that preparations were sold for giving an artificial tan, just as among Colored folk there are preparations for whitening their skin.
In one of the fashionable suburbs I saw men lolling in the gardens nude, save for a little loin cloth, somewhat like that of a Zulu, know as a dreideck, while the women wore a thin one-piece bathing suit that left the legs and arms bare. This was also the fashion at Wannsee, the bathing place.
On Fehrbelliner platz the children, boys and girls, ran around absolutely nude in the parks until about 1:30 p.m and at the beach at Motzen the Communists, grown men and women, went into to bathe, dressed only in their birthday suits. More and more the civilized white man is taking pages out of the African’s book. Hereafter is will be difficult for tourists who go to Haiti and Puerto Rico to make fun of the nude children there.
Indeed, one could not but be struck by this cult of nudity and brownness in Germany, especially in Berlin. In many of the leading magazines there were photographs of men and women, mostly the latter, as they are, minus clothes. From my hostel window I could see each morning a man of evident wealth and refinement standing quite nude at the window, looking out on the street, while the sun burnt his body.
The German Ideal
I learned that he had been doing that for a long time and that the police had never troubled him.
I was also told that the German ideal is “a tall brown man with black hair,” and was very much amused to hear that blonde skin and blonde hair are not so highly thought of. “Too white,” it was said, and so they tried to brown it, just as dark-skinned American try to whiten themselves.
Among the interesting persons I met in Berlin was Herr Victor Klages, editor of the Tagesblatt, Berlin’s largest newspaper. Herr Klages spoke excellent English, and told me that he had written a book entitled “The Negro and the League of Nations,” which would appear in German shortly. He was well acquainted with The Chicago Defender, and told me, among other things, that it was very difficult for him to understand the American point of view on the race question. By the way, also among the papers on file in the American Express in Berlin was the Defender.
Herr Klages also very kindly showed me over his printing plant, which up to that time was the largest I have ever seen. There were eight floors, 52 Linotype machines, six presses, not to mention the flat bed ones, many of the latest inventions and a radio station at which we heard New York clearly. All in all, an immense, astounding place. This plant employs over three thousand persons and cost $30,000,000. Later I saw another printing plant, still bigger, named Ullstein’s.
An evidence of the efficiency of the German people was given me when Mrs. Abbott and I made a trip to some of the smaller towns throughout Germany. Here we observed the system of the rural delivery which the German have perfected. The central post office, I learned, is also a passenger station, and the buses that carry the mail to the rural communities also carry passengers. Thus the passengers defray all the expenses of the mail, which is delivered to central points along the route, where it is picked up by rural carriers and distributed.
The buses, large and comfortable, are marked “Poste” in large letters. They pull up to the stations, take on their cargo or mail and passengers, and hit the highway for the rural towns and the well kept farm districts. I naturally confused this with our own system in America, where the old “one hoss shay” is still used in most of our rural communities.
Leaving Berlin, we went to Wiesbaden, which is a full day’s ride on the train. We passed over much beautiful country and noted how thoroughly the land was cultivated. Everywhere could be seen women working in the fields, bare-footed.
As traveling companion in our compartment was Miss Virginia Dwyer of the staff of the Boston Post, a very agreeable and charming young lady.
Wiesbaden is one of the most aristocratic of the German resorts and people come here to take the cures of the many kinds of hot springs. It is a beautiful town, with fine cafes and restaurants and lovely parks. The Engilsh army of occupation was stationed there and English soldiers could be seen everywhere. Wiesbaden is very old, though its buildings are comparatively new. The Romans of Cicero’s day used to come here to take the baths.
Much champagne is made here and before leaving we visited one of the cellars and drank some of the noted German champagne, which was very hospitably offered to us.
On one street we encountered one John Davis, who said he was the only Colored man in the town. He was born in Galveston, Tex., and said he had been living in Wiesbaden for 11 years. He said that he never intended returning to America. “I have steered my ship into a good port,” he said, “and intend to stay here.”
Many Old Castles
From Wiesbaden we went by ear down to the B… and took the boat for the trip down the Rhine. All the remainder of the day we rode through beautiful scenery and saw the vineyards from which the famous Moselle wine is made. Some of these vineyards are away up on the sides of the mountains, the land having been built with great patience from earth carried up there.
Shortly after leaving Wiesbaden and all the way to Coblenz we passed the old castles for which the Rhine is famous, perched on the mountain peaks. Nearly all of them were destroyed by the armies of Louis XIV and Napoleon, and only their ruins are standing.
But some of them have been re-built. Among these are Stolzenfels, one of the palaces of the ex-kaiser: Castle Schoenburg, one of the homes of the Rheinlander family, and Ehrenbreitstein, largest of all. This overlooks the town of Coblenz, and was the headquarters of the American army when it was stationed on the Rhine. These old castles were once occupied by … barons who would descend on the people living in the plains. We also saw the famous Mose tower in which Bishop Hatto was said to have been eaten alive by the rats. Bishop Hatto, it is said, according to Southey’s noted poem, cornered all the wheat and would not give the starving people any. The rats came after the wheat and ate up the bishop, too.
The Rhine is full of romance and history. Many of the German operas like “Parsifal,” have the Rhine as their origin. A ride on this beautiful river alone is worth a trip to Europe.
It is a very busy river, too, and all that day we passed strings of great barges flying the flats of the different nations. Mannheim, a little to the south of Wiesbaden, is really one of the principle ports of Europe, so great is the commerce on the Rhine.
The boat goes as far as Cologne, and getting off have we visited the cathedral, which is the larges in Europe. Cologne was an old Roman colony, and we saw .. of the old Roman walls. The bells of the cathedral are ringing .. of the time. Their sound just seems to fill everything and it is somewhat difficult for a stranger to get accustomed to them.
While strolling about I saw something in a shop window that arrested my attention. It was that of a full size wax model of a black man, kinky hair and all, that was used to advertise the latest model of men’s clothing. The store was one of the best in the town, and it struck me that the man who used it knew his business, for it was a novel idea and bound to attract attention. I pass the idea on to some of our American department stores if they want something new.
Leaving Cologne, we passed the border back into Belgium. We spent the night at Brussels and next day went to Ostend, where we took the boat for England.
Source: Robert S. Abbott, “My Trip Abroad: VII–Sojourning in Germany,” The Chicago Defender (21 December 1929); “My Trip Abroad: VIII–The Negro in Berlin,” The Chicago Defender (28 December 1929).
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