An Unwanted Journey "Home": Black American Internees in World War II Europe

tags: racism, African American history, internment, World War 2, Expatriates

Eve Brandel is a librarian based in Massachusetts who is at work researching the procurement of Latin American passports for European Jews escaping the Holocaust. 





“Europe is, of course, an ideal place for study and travel for our people,” proclaimed a 1911 article in a leading Black newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman. The message was reinforced several years later, when Black Army veterans returning home after service in France during World War I brought word of a country that had welcomed them and had treated them with respect. Thousands of Black Americans made their way across the Atlantic in the following years, seeking new opportunities and freedom from American racism.


By the 1930s, however, dark clouds were gathering across Europe. When the United States entered World War II after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, American nationals in German-controlled countries were trapped. Now considered enemy aliens, they were forced from their homes and relocated to civilian internment camps.


Among the many rounded up for the camps were approximately two dozen Black Americans. Some spent the remainder of the war imprisoned. Others, after time in the camps, were selected for prisoner of war exchanges -- repatriated to the country in which they had been born, but one to which they had not necessarily intended to return.


Their story to date has not been told.




The French gave the Black American troops deployed to France during World War I a warm reception, and they also embraced the new styles of music played by the military bands that accompanied the Black regiments. American jazz became wildly popular, and Black artists who traveled to Europe found large and appreciative audiences for their music, and for their dance and theater.


But even for those who were not entertainers, European countries exerted their pull. Josephine Baker, the St. Louis born singer and dancer who became a French citizen in 1937 (and was therefore not subject to internment as an American during the war) described the experience of many Black Americans in France when she spoke at the 1963 March on Washington: “I could go into any restaurant I wanted to, and I could drink water anyplace I wanted to, and I didn’t have to go to a colored toilet either, and I have to tell you it was nice, and I got used to it, and I liked it…”


Some of the Black Americans eventually returned to the United States, but others chose to put down roots in France and elsewhere in Europe. They learned new languages, studied in European institutions, found work, started businesses.




France and Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, and the possibility of the United States entering the conflict jeopardized the security of Americans residing abroad. United States embassies warned American citizens to return home, and under the threat of war many did. But transatlantic travel was expensive, and a return trip to Europe was not a certainty. Americans with European careers or businesses were reluctant to pull up stakes and leave behind their sources of income. For Black Americans, there was an additional consideration: a return home meant a return to racial inequities and anti-Black violence. Those now married to white Europeans had to keep in mind that interracial relationships were illegal and even punishable by imprisonment in many states.


After the invasion of Pearl Harbor, the window slammed shut. Within days of the December 7, 1941 attack, Germany and the United States were at war, and Americans in Germany and German-occupied countries were trapped. Rather than deport them, Germany arranged for their arrest and transport to civilian internment camps. Americans were potentially useful -- not as laborers, but for prisoner of war exchanges.


Imprisoned in the camps, their daily lives strictly controlled by their German captors, American internees experienced separation from home and loved ones, and the gnawing uncertainty of a future beyond their control. But fortunately for the interned civilians, Germany treated them in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Conventions, an international agreement regarding the humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war. They were entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical care, and repatriation in case of serious illness. They could be used for labor, but only under limited circumstances.


Available records give no indication of German racial animus towards African American internees; to the contrary, repatriated Black internees noted that they had been accorded the same treatment as white internees. A repatriated Ersie Leon Brooks told a reporter for the newspaper The Afro-American, “Black and white make [sic] no difference to the Nazis. We were all treated alike, occupied the same quarters, eating, sleeping, and spending our leisure time together.”  “I can’t complain about the way we were treated,” jazz pianist Freddy Johnson said to the music magazine Metronome upon his repatriation, noting also: “There was never any kind of Jim Crow.”




Newspapers and other contemporaneous sources reveal the names of approximately two dozen Black Americans in internment camps. Freddy Johnson left the United States in 1928 to tour Europe with the Sam Wooding Orchestra and afterwards stayed in France, co-leading an orchestra with trumpeter Arthur Briggs and playing in top Parisian nightspots before settling in Holland in 1934. Henry Crowder was a jazz pianist, singer, orchestra leader, and composer who performed throughout Europe; he was known for his music but also for his years-long romantic involvement with heiress Nancy Cunard of the Cunard Line family, whom he met in Venice. Reginald Berry, known professionally as Reginald Siki, was a popular professional wrestler who relocated to Europe in 1933. All three - Johnson, Crowder, and Berry – were interned in a camp in Bavaria, Germany.


A different internment camp in Germany held dancer (and Josephine Baker costar) Evelyn Anderson. Jazz guitarist Maceo Jefferson, who performed with Louis Armstrong, was interned in a camp in Compiègne, France.


Not every internee was a public figure. Also interned in Compiegne was World War I veteran Ersie Leon Brooks of Decatur, Alabama. Brooks had served with an all-Black labor battalion in France during World War I. After his 1919 discharge, he chose to stay. At the time of his arrest in December 1941, he was working as a wine salesman.


Interestingly, a concert and music hall singer named James Elmer Spyglass, who had first gone to Europe in 1906 (“The fact that I am colored helps me in my stage business here where I donot [sic] find so much prejudice against me as in the United States,” he had explained in connection with a 1925 passport application) continued to live freely in Germany during the war, for reasons that are not clear.




Germany rounded up hundreds of American citizens during World War II. Some remained in civilian internment camps until they were liberated, but others left early, repatriated in exchange for German nationals. Repatriation was a mixed blessing, given that there was no clear path back to the spouses and children and careers and houses full of furniture left behind in Europe. “The question of what would become of them was a matter of deep concern to many of the civilians who had no homes or friends in this country,” noted The New York Times in an article about one of the prisoner exchanges.


The situation was especially fraught for Black internees now back in the United States, a country many of them had gone to great lengths to leave. An article in the Black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier concerning a group of internees who arrived in the United States in March 1944 stated: “With few exceptions, they want to return to Europe after the war because they were accorded respect as Americans and not as Negroes. This fact was emphasized by all 10 of the men and women interviewed by The Courier.”


Some of the Black Americans sent back to the United States eventually returned to Europe, but some did not.


Henry Crowder spent the years between his 1944 repatriation and his death in 1955 relatively quietly, living in Washington D.C. and working for the Customs Bureau and the Coast Guard.


Freddy Johnson, also repatriated in 1944, did get to see Holland, where he had lived for years and owned a nightclub, one more time, but it was as a visitor. He died in New York in 1961.


Reginald Berry lived for only four years after his repatriation. He successfully resumed his wrestling career in the United States, but he succumbed to a heart ailment at the age of 49.


Ersie Leon Brooks, back in the United States after his participation in a prisoner of war exchange, told a reporter for The Afro American, “I plan to return to France and start all over again.” He had a wife still in France and half his life ahead of him. It is not clear that he ever made it back. Records show a second marriage in Ohio in 1953 and, in 1990, Brooks’ death in his nineties in a Warrensville Heights, Ohio hospital.


Living in Europe in the interwar years, Black Americans enjoyed freedoms denied them at home, but, ironically, America’s entry into World War II meant arrest and internment for those who had not left in time. For some, it also meant a one-way trip back to the United States – a journey “home” they neither planned nor truly wanted.

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