J. Elmer Spyglass teaches Germans about democracy (1947)

S36_F_06653 E Spyglass
From the F. N. Manskopf collection (ca. 1910), Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main, Sign. S36_F06653

J. Elmer Spyglass (ca. 1877-1957) was an African-American musician who pursued his career in Europe before the First World War and eventually ended up in Germany, where he lived until his death in 1957. Like many African Americans, he tried to make his way as a concert singer, but few black artists were able to overcome the resistance to seeing them as serious musicians. Instead he found his way into music halls and cabarets, performing with established white stars all around Europe and learning several languages along the way. Like many African American entertainers, in his acts he brought together “African American” pieces, like spirituals and folk songs, with works ranging from opera to European folk music. He was successful enough that at the age of 53 he retired from the stage and took up residence in a pension in a Frankfurt suburb, where he lived with his white German partner Helene Patt. They also had a flat in the nearby village of Schwalbach am Taunus, which they visited regularly.

He did not leave when the Nazis came to power. Because he was a well-known figure locally and was not particularly political, he said he never had much trouble with the authorities, despite being both American and black. In 1944 Spyglass and Patt were bombed out of their Frankfurt residence and moved to Schwalbach, where they helped locals to get through the war. When American troops arrived, Spyglass served as a mediator between the townsfolk and the occupying authorities and gave English lessons. In 1954, the town recognized him for his services by making an honorary citizen and in 1994 established in his honor a prize recognizing individuals who had worked toward intercultural understanding.

Inspired by a desire to bring together Germans and Americans, Spyglass returned to work as the receptionist in the U.S. General Consulate in Frankfurt. It was in this capacity that he drew the attention of journalists, who were captivated by his story. In this interview published in the American illustrated magazine Life, Spyglass’s extraordinary experiences provided an opportunity to show that the transition to democracy might not be so difficult for the Germans after all.


Transcribe the article linked in entirety


Source: Will Lang, “J. Elmer Spyglass,” Life (3 November 1947), 4-11.