Why the Nordic Countries Emerged as a Haven for 20th-Century African American Expatriates

An exhibition in Seattle spotlights the Black artists and performers who called Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden home between the 1930s and the 1980s

Saxophonist Dexter Gordon at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen in 1964
Saxophonist Dexter Gordon at Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen in 1964 Courtesy of Kirsten Malone

In November 1953, Ebony magazine published an essay by African American singer Anne Brown, who wrote about her life in Norway after relocating from the United States. The change was first set in motion during the mid-1940s, when Brown made a stop in Oslo during a five-month European concert tour that also took her to Belgium, France, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland and Italy. She traveled back across the Atlantic Ocean for a brief interlude in the U.S. before deciding to return to the Nordic region. “I arrived without a concert booking,” she wrote. “I just wanted to be in Norway for a while.”

Brown had fallen deeply, blissfully in love. At first it was with the shade of green she discerned on the snow-covered trees; the sense of serene isolation surrounding the cabins she encountered in the woods; and the warmth of the Norwegian people, who had just emerged from the shadow of war yet showed her nothing but welcome and sincere admiration.

And then, eventually, there was a man. He was in the audience at one of the concerts she’d booked upon her return, making such intense, electrifying eye contact that Brown could scarcely focus on her performance. After the show, the stranger went backstage to introduce himself. His name was Thorleif Schjelderup, and he was a philosopher, a trained lawyer and one of Norway’s most talented ski jumpers.

Copy of Anne Brown's 1953 "Ebony" essay
The exhibition features a copy of Anne Brown's 1953 Ebony essay. Courtesy of the National Nordic Museum

Not long after meeting, the pair began a correspondence that culminated in a letter sent by Schjelderup while Brown was on tour in Denmark. “Now, Anne,” it read, “we have to decide several things. Shall we live in Europe or America? Shall we have 10 children or 20? Shall we have a big house or a small one? … On a mountain or deep in the woods?” The couple married ten months later.

Today, an original copy of Brown’s Ebony essay, titled “I Gave Up My Country for Love,” sits beneath a glass case in “Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century,” a multimedia exhibition at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle. Grounded in years of co-curator Ethelene Whitmire’s scholarly research, it focuses on African Americans who made their way to Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden between the 1930s and the 1980s. The group included visual and performing artists, filmmakers, diplomats, and activists, who arrived in the region for temporary visits, for extended stays or to permanently resettle.

The exhibition tells these individuals’ stories via a collection of testimonials, televised interviews, sound recordings and archival footage. The items are placed in conversation with artistic works from the museum’s permanent collection, as well as loans from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and other cultural institutions around the world. The exhibition is on view until July 21, after which it will travel to the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin, and Scandinavia House in New York City.

Installation vew of "Nordic Utopia?"
Installation vew of "Nordic Utopia?" Courtesy of the National Nordic Museum

In the popular imagination, the history of African American expatriates in Europe tends to begin and end in Paris, focusing on prominent figures like entertainer Josephine Baker and writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright. “Nordic Utopia?” takes visitors beyond Paris to Copenhagen, Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm and other Nordic cities, introducing them to a less familiar, though no less influential, group of travelers.

Many members of this loose cohort began their international ventures in Paris but were soon unable to resist the pull of the Nordic countries. As Whitmire, a scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says, “African Americans visited, performed, studied and lived in Scandinavia for a variety of reasons: a sense of adventure, love, the pursuit of educational and professional opportunities, and the freedom to explore their sexuality.”

South Carolina-born visual artist William Henry Johnson moved to the City of Light in 1926 to study Modernism and immerse himself in a dynamic creative community. While on an artistic sojourn to the French fishing village of Cagnes-sur-Mer, where he produced several stylized paintings of its landscape, Johnson met and fell in love with Danish textile artist Holcha Krake. The couple married and eventually moved to southern Denmark, spending most of the 1930s in the southern coastal town of Kerteminde, whose houses, streets, windmills and harbor became the focus of much of Johnson’s work.

Boats in the Harbor, Kerteminde, William H. Johnson, circa 1930-1931
Boats in the Harbor, Kerteminde, William H. Johnson, circa 1930-1931 Courtesy of the Johnson Collection

Expressionist painter Herbert Gentry followed a similar route. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Gentry served during World War II, then moved to Paris in 1946 with the help of the G.I. Bill. An invitation to exhibit his work in Copenhagen in 1958 led to a five-year stay in the Danish capital, which was in turn followed by a move to Gothenburg, Sweden, with his Swedish wife and their son.

By the mid-20th century, the Nordic countries enjoyed a reputation as not only havens from the rampant racism of the U.S. but also centers of dynamic artistic production. They soon became destinations in and of themselves. Painter Walter Williams traveled to Denmark with the support of a fellowship, while artist Howard Smith accepted an invitation to travel from Philadelphia to Helsinki as part of a U.S.-sponsored cultural festival that quickly led to commissions for mixed-media creations. He regularly collaborated with Finnish textile and ceramics firms, producing a variety of floral prints, animal figurines and ceramics.

“One surely interesting thing made possible by my being in Finland,” Smith once said, “was the cooperation of industry, whereas in America we know that the Black artist has little, if any, possibility to work in a creative way with any industry. There, I was able to accomplish a good deal.”

Untitled, Herbert Gentry, 1961
Untitled, Herbert Gentry, 1961 Courtesy of the estate of the artist and Ryan Lee Gallery, New York

Other types of artists found opportunity in the Nordic countries, too. In the 1960s, saxophonist Dexter Gordon moved to Copenhagen, where he tapped into a deep pool of collaborators in the city’s burgeoning jazz scene and found regular opportunities to record a steady stream of hits. A decade later, pianist Duke Jordan encountered a similarly welcoming scene when he arrived in the city, where he joined forces with African American drummer Ed Thigpen and Danish bassist Mads Vinding to record Flight to Denmark, an album produced by the Danish label SteepleChase Records.

Both Gordon and Jordan were frequent headliners at Jazzhus Montmartre. Founded in 1959, the Copenhagen club communicated its twin ambitions via its name, which paid homage to the African Americans who had made the Parisian arrondissement a legendary center of jazz music and cultural production in the 1920s, and—more importantly—invited a new generation of Black performers to make their mark on a new part of the world.

Bebop singer Babs Gonzales in Copenhagen in 1968
Bebop singer Babs Gonzales in Copenhagen in 1968 Courtesy of Kirsten Malone

Indeed, African Americans wielded profound influence in the region. As “Nordic Utopia?” co-curator Leslie Anderson says, “From musicians who performed on tour to visual artists who established their lives and careers in the Nordic countries, this exhibition celebrates the roles that African American creatives played in a mid-century cultural efflorescence.” Jazz musicians like Gordon and Jordan, for example, fostered a deep appreciation for the genre, which is evident today in the long-running Copenhagen Jazz Festival. And Smith’s collaborations with design companies Vallila and Arabia informed the Finnish domestic interior and objects of everyday life.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the question mark looming over the exhibition. As Whitmire says, the show’s title “was selected, at least in my mind, to acknowledge that the Nordics are not utopias for non-American Black people … in the 21st century.” Literary and cultural historian Monica L. Miller has made similar observations in her work on Sweden, which has cultivated an image of itself as a social democracy and center of equity and inclusion despite its long history and enduring legacy of racism and xenophobia toward migrants from Africa and the Arab world.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the same period the country was welcoming American expatriates, its scientists embraced eugenics, while its white artists—predecessors and peers to Johnson and others—embraced racist, colonialist tropes in their work. According to Miller, “As Sweden took the steps to create its liberal, progressive, generous welfare state, it did so based on notions of inclusion, worth and community that necessarily relied on notions of exclusion and hierarchy.”

Even for African Americans, the day-to-day reality of living in the Nordic countries presented its share of complications. In her Ebony essay, Brown (whose story provides important gender balance in the exhibition, since most of her featured contemporaries are African American men) wrote of the “little stupidities” she encountered in Oslo, like a maid who was reportedly asked, “What’s it like working for Anne Brown? Does she smell different from anybody else?” Another woman raised a racist question to a friend of Brown’s husband: “How does it work out, that marriage between a primitive and such a high-bred person?” The friend responded, “Oh, it works out fine, but what makes you think that Thorleif is primitive?

Sunset, Denmark, William H. Johnson, circa 1935-1938
Sunset, Denmark, William H. Johnson, circa 1935-1938 Smithsonian American Art Museum / Gift of the Harmon Foundation

While none of these experiences steered Brown away from her devotion to Norway, where she continued living until her death in 2009, they served as a reminder that for African Americans, there was no complete escape from racism. In Another Man’s Country, a two-part documentary that aired on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in 1970 and appears in the exhibition, African American expatriate Bernie Moore (who, according to a wall label, once co-owned a restaurant in Copenhagen called Soul Kitchen) put it plainly: “I am a Black man in Denmark, and I have the same problems here. There isn’t that great a change. I can’t get an apartment readily.”

Referencing yet another reason why the Nordic countries could never truly be a utopia for African Americans, Smith once said, “I got lonesome there [in Finland]. … I need the spiritual input, I guess, of being around Black people. … This life that we all need is the fire that comes more abundantly from Blacks to me than from others.”

Nordic Utopia? African Americans in the 20th Century” is on view at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle through July 21.

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