Experience 1930s Europe Through the Words of Two African American Women

In the pages of the “Chicago Defender,” the cousins detailed their adventures traversing the continent while also observing signs of the changing tides

Cousins Flaurience Sengstacke (left) and Roberta G. Thomas (right) regaled readers with tales of their travels in some 20 Chicago Defender columns published between July 1931 and August 1932. (Screenshots via ProQuest Historical Newspapers / Illustration by Meilan Solly)
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Five years before the publication of the first Negro Motorist Green Book—the beloved guide of destinations deemed safe for African Americans in a nation segregated by Jim Crow—two cousins named Roberta G. Thomas and Flaurience Sengstacke chronicled what life was like for two young, African American women traveling abroad. Published in the pages of the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper published by their uncle Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the cousins’ columns regaled readers with tales of the duo’s travels throughout Europe, as recounted in some 20 articles penned between July 1931 and August 1932. They experienced highs, like watching the indelible Josephine Baker perform in Paris, and lows, including an encounter with racism on an Italian train ride. The pair’s words bore auspicious warning, particularly as they witnessed the rise of “oppression and paranoia” during the dying days of Germany’s Weimar Republic.

By sharing stories with the largely black readership of the Defender, the cousins sparked remembrance of fond memories among those who had similarly traveled abroad and provided an escapist fantasy for those who had “not yet seen the grandeur that is Europe.” The Defender, like other black newspapers at the time, used overseas correspondents to report on news, encouraging those traveling abroad as performers, tourists and students to report on their experiences. Rather than focusing exclusively on local or domestic issues, the publication hoped to establish African Americans’ presence on the world stage.

Hilary Mac Austin, author of the journal article “The Defender Brings You the World,” writes that this coverage “was an essential element in the cosmopolitan identity” of the black elite. The cousins’ European adventures signaled to readers that grand tours of Europe weren’t limited to upper-class white women, but were also accessible to African American travelers.

According to Ethan Michaeli’s The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, the newspaper catered to a diverse audience of laborers, maids, students, churchgoers, theatergoers, business owners and unemployed individuals affected by the Great Depression. It boasted an array of notable advertisers, including Madam C.J. Walker, one of the country’s wealthiest African American entrepreneurs, and despite its Chicago-centric title, reached a widespread audience. Abbott shrewdly recruited Pullman porters to supplement their income by distributing the Defender on trains traveling throughout the United States and signing up new subscribers.

Arguably the most important aspect of the paper’s legacy was its role in the Great Migration. Because the Defender encouraged African Americans to leave the South and move north for better occupational opportunities, many white Southerners considered it dangerously radical and “sought to prohibit its sale and distribution.” In Meridian, Mississippi, the police chief attempted to confiscate all copies of the newspapers but was thwarted when the “paper sold out on the day it arrived.” Copies were exchanged “until they disintegrated,” according to Michaeli.

Robert G. Thomas and Flaurience Sengstacke return from their trip
The cousins (Thomas stands at the far left, while Sengstacke is seated at the far left) pose for a family portrait after returning from their trip. (Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Chicago Public Library )

By 1916, the Defender had become the best-selling black newspaper in the United States. At its height during World War I, writes Michaeli, the publication was considered the “king of the weeklies.” Adds the author, “The Defender was the giant … in terms of circulation and national reach, selling as many copies every week as all of the ten other black newspapers combined.” In 1921, the paper sold more than 280,000 weekly copies; nine years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, the Defender remained relatively robust, selling an average of 110,000 weekly copies.

Abbott financed Thomas and Sengstacke’s European vacation as a generous gift marking their graduation from Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, in 1930. Both 24 years old at the start of the trip, the duo traversed Italy, Sweden, Denmark, England, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and Germany, relaying news from abroad in joint dispatches or in Thomas’ solo column, “A Little About Everything.”

The cousins’ journey began on a positive note. Setting sail on July 17, 1931, the young women reported that “there was not an inch of prejudice” aboard the S.S. Conte Biancamano. “Everyone was friendly,” the pair added.

Thomas and Sengstacke spent the majority of their year in Germany with relatives. Reflecting on the experience, they wrote, mirroring their description of their eastbound sea journey, “There were no traces of cruelty or prejudice seen the whole time we were there.” The cousins acknowledged that “We were stared at more in Germany than in any other country,” but explained, “We soon found that the stare was a friendly and curious stare, and only typical of those parts of Germany where the darker people seldom visit.” While visiting family in Bremen, the pair even reported, “Everyone wanted to dance with us and did their best to make things pleasant for us.”

According to the duo, the Germans they encountered were both well-informed on and appalled by the treatment of African Americans in the United States. “We were asked many times about the Race problem,” the cousins wrote. “One fellow wanted to know why Negroes stayed in America and did not go to countries where they treat people like they are human beings.”

One of the most poignant moments detailed in Thomas and Sengstacke’s missives reflects the pervasive reach of Jim Crow. In 1931, the cousins, accompanied by a group of black students from Virginia’s Hampton Institute, sat down to dine on a train from Florence to Venice. Before they could order, however, a group of white college students from Texas approached the table and said, “You have our seats; we ordered these.” The cousins and their companions promptly moved, only to realize they were the butt of a joke when the Texans “began laughing and saying unpleasant things.” Dismay turned into indignation, and as Thomas and Sengstacke later recounted, “[W]e reported them to the head man, who asked them to get up and get out of the dining car or take other seats. And were they angry!”

The dining car incident served as a prelude to the travelers’ next encounter with the “poor little Texans,” who were reportedly “shocked” to see the group relaxing in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. One white student said, “We do not allow them to do that in Texas.” In response, a Hampton student retorted, “Remember, brother, you are not in Texas.” The cousins recorded the incidents in a column sub-titled “A familiar act in a strange setting.”

***

Most of the cousins’ Defender dispatches centered on more traditional tourist fare, including trips to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the ruins of Pompeii, the Tower of London, Sweden’s Malmö Castle, the Eiffel Tower and many other sites. Others detailed such topics as obtaining a passport and visas; saving money; using traveler’s checks and letters of credits; coping with sea sickness; and selecting a guide or interpreter (not on the streets!). Thomas and Sengstacke assured readers that though they both spoke a little German and French, they added that they had no need to learn more than a few key words in each destination’s respective language.

Roberta G. Thomas and Flaurience Sengstacke as young girls
The cousins during their teenage years (Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Chicago Public Library )

While in London, where they also visited the British Museum, they wrote, “Every afternoon and evening we would either sit in Hyde Park, which was right across the street from our hotel and listen to the band concert, or sit near the window in our hotel and enjoy the program just the same.” In Copenhagen, the pair had “the great pleasure of seeing and hearing the great actress of Paris, Josephine Baker, and she was good!” Performing in a packed theater, Baker —an American expatriate who won fame in 1920s France with her sensual jazz routines—enthralled the cousins with her “apparels, her charming manners, her individual dances and acts. … She did most of her speaking and singing in French and German. She was the talk of the town.”

Later, during a separate trip to Paris, Thomas and Sengstacke attended yet another Baker show. Assessing the state of the French capital’s overall culture, they noted that many of the city’s cabarets were “owned and operated by Negroes and [staffed with] many Negro orchestras and entertainers.”

***

The cousins’ initial impression of Germany as a tolerant, progressive nation belied the changing tides on the horizon. While visiting the town of Heidelberg, for instance, Thomas and Sengstacke saw a bridge and castle engulfed in flames as part of a celebration of German independence: “Everything was in an uproar as the famous Hitlerites were staging a political scene. On a lofty hill behind the castle one got a glimpse of an electric sign being flashed on and off and each time the sign was lighted with Hitlerite colors [the crowd] would yell, ‘Heil Hitler.’” Rather than dwelling on this disturbing scene, the pair left Heidelberg, taking a trip down the Rhine to Cologne.

When Sengstacke returned to Germany to visit relatives in 1936, she reported back to U.S.-based family members that “the atmosphere had changed from one of warmth and openness to oppression and paranoia.” Photographs of a maternal ancestor named Elizabeth Sengstacke Boedeker, as well as a portrait of Abbott, founder and publisher of the Defender, had been taken down from where they “had hung proudly in their parlor” due to their subjects’ “distinctly African complexion.” Additionally, Sengstacke stated, because “the oldest of these cousins were just one-quarter African, … under the Nuremberg Laws of racial purity passed the previous year, even that ancestry had become a dangerous liability.

Deemed “non-Aryans,” these relatives now fell under the purview of government officials who removed the younger family members from school, fired the adults from their jobs, cut their food rations, and even blocked them from mundane activities like wearing a brown shirt, part of the uniform of the Nazi paramilitary units. Family members asked Sengstacke to tell relatives in Chicago to stop sending issues of the Defender because of its unflattering comments about Germany.

***

The cousins’ final column, titled “America Welcomes Travelers at End of World Trip,” described their return voyage on the S.S. Bremen, which docked in New York City on August 27, 1932. They concluded:

[W]e will never be able to express enough gratitude to the giver. The trip was quite an inspiration that no human being can take from us regardless of how hard he tries. It is something that we will take with us to our graves—it is something that we can amuse ourselves with while alone; it is more than a good friend would be to use because it will stay with us always.

To the Defender’s readers, they said:

[W]e hope that you have enjoyed our articles and that some day you too may be able to cover the same trip and more, and write up your experiences for others to read and profit by in years to come. You can really see America from a different angle after such a trip is taken.

Today, travel groups such as Black & Abroad, or individual black bloggers like Oneika the Traveller, continue the tradition pioneered by Thomas and Sengstacke, offering African American readers tips on how to travel cheaply, take solo trips, decide which tourist sites to visit and where to dine. Tours like Black Paris, meanwhile, literally find tourists tracing the footsteps of black luminaries including Baker, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Richard Wright.

Unlike Thomas and Sengstacke, today’s travel bloggers often finance their own adventures. Still, the cousins’ modern counterparts remain equally committed to encouraging other black travelers to experience the joys of visiting other countries as inexpensively and as safely as possible.

About Ethelene Whitmire

Ethelene Whitmire is a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Afro-American Studies. She is the author of Regina Anderson Andrews, Harlem Renaissance Librarian.

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