Traveling While Black Across the Atlantic Ocean

Following in the footsteps of African Americans traveling to Denmark in the early 20th century, Ethelene Whitmire experiences a 21st century transatlantic crossing.

Ethelene Whitmire | Longreads | January 2019 | 19 minutes (4,642 words)

“Welcome aboard!” the Cunard agent exclaimed, and I suddenly felt a clichéd warm tingling sensation. After hesitating for several weeks, I finally…booked a passage? I got a berth? I do not know the lingo. So let us say I got a ticket for a seven-day, eastbound, transatlantic crossing on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 from New York City (technically the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal) to Southampton, England for June, 2018, the first leg of a trip to Denmark. I was committed — or semi-committed. I placed a 10% deposit (fully refundable for a few weeks) to hold my space, and immediately made a note in my electronic calendar for two days before the deadline to remind myself to cancel if I changed my mind. I’d visited Denmark 12 times since my initial trip in May and June, 2010, including a year as a Fulbright scholar, but I’d always flown there.

I am writing a book about African Americans in 20th century Denmark. During the past few years I followed in their footsteps by visiting Danish cities, towns, villages, islands, a prison, numerous castles, jazz clubs, an educational institution, and the homes and studios where they lived, visited, performed, toured, and studied. A friend suggested I more accurately recreate the experience of the people in my book who lived in the first half of the 20th century, when the only way to get to Denmark from the United States was to cross the Atlantic Ocean by ship. I’d read much of what they’d written about their experiences in letters home, in memoirs, and in one case, in a newspaper column.

They traveled abroad during the Jim Crow era in the United States, and many feared they would face racism and even possible segregation on the ships. Perhaps they were familiar with the oft-told tale of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ 1845 crossing. He was almost thrown overboard by some Americans after the captain invited him to make an anti-slavery speech. Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor called Douglass’ voyage “harrowing” in Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War. William M. Fowler, Jr. wrote in Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic that although Douglass booked a first-class cabin, once he was on the Cambria he “discovered that he had been reassigned to quarters in the forecastle, separate from the other passengers, and he was advised to remain secluded there during the crossing.”

I did not worry about segregation during my 21st century transatlantic crossing, but wondered about and anticipated possible microaggressions — slights and condescending comments often based on racial stereotypes. I did not see many images in Cunard’s brochures and website featuring Black people among the passengers. I was educated in predominantly white institutions and worked at similar institutions as an administrator and as a professor, so I was used to being in white spaces. And I live in Wisconsin — one of the whitest states in the nation. I wondered what would my journey be like on the Atlantic Ocean?

***

In the September 18, 1937 issue of the Negro newspaper Amsterdam News there is a picture with the title “See You in Denmark.” Three smiling, well-dressed African Americans are posing on a ship with one arm raised to wave goodbye to an unseen audience. A man and woman who appear to be a couple are on one side of a life preserver, and a single woman stands on the other. Both women of have on skirt-suits, hats, and flower corsages. The man is in a three-piece suit with a tie. The man and the single woman were both professors at historically Black institutions, traveling abroad on Rosenwald Fellowships. The name of the ship, S. S. Kungsholm, and the destination, Göteborg, were visible onthe life preserver. The photo caption said: “It’s only au revoir from Mr. and Mrs. Giles Hubert and Miss Frances E. Thompson.” It should have instead been vi ses or see you later in Danish. This is just one of the images and stories that captured my imagination as I wrote my book manuscript. I wondered what was it like to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. I considered dressing up as if I lived in the 1930s for my voyage, as one couple did, but I ended up wearing a purple maxi dress with a matching corsage of fake purple flowers.

I did not worry about segregation during my 21st century transatlantic crossing, but wondered about and anticipated possible microaggressions. I did not see many images in Cunard’s brochures and website featuring Black people among the passengers.

My current book manuscript begins with Tuskegee president and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington visiting many European countries in 1910 to study the lives of peasants, or what he called The Man Farthest Down in his 1913 book. He wrote a chapter about his experiences in Denmark in this book and in his 1911 publication, My Larger Education, in which he declared Denmark to be the happiest country in the world. Denmark regularly tops the lists of the world’s happiest countries these days, but Washington declared it over one hundred years earlier. His first European trip was in 1899 and he recorded his thoughts in his memoir Up From Slavery. Washington’s friends raised money to send him and his wife Margaret on a European summer vacation so that he could get some rest after working steadily at Tuskegee for 18 years. Washington, born into slavery, could not fathom taking a vacation. He said, “Luxuries had always seemed to me to be something meant for white people, not for my race.” Washington had always worked and could not figure out how to do nothing for several months. He said, “The fact was that I did not know how to take a vacation.”

His friends booked his passage on the Friesland from the Red Star Line. Washington was apprehensive. He recalled,

I had just a little fear that we would not be treated civilly by some of the passengers. This fear was based upon what I had heard other people of my race, who had crossed the ocean, say about unpleasant experiences in crossing the ocean in American vessels.

Once Washington was on the Atlantic Ocean he had a transformational experience. He said once

the steamer had cut loose from the wharf, the load of care, anxiety, and responsibility which I had carried for eighteen years began to lift itself from my shoulders at the rate, it seemed to me, of a pound a minute. It was the first time in all those years that I had felt, even in a measure, free from care; and my feeling of relief it is hard to describe on paper.

Washington sailed on Cunard’s Carmania during his second trip abroad that included a stop in Denmark. That crossing must have been uneventful because although he wrote about his travels during the second trip, including hilarious encounters with the Danish royal family, he said nothing about the crossing.

In 1928, Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen published a semi-autobiographical novel, Quicksand, and sent her African American/Danish protagonist Helga Crane to Denmark for nearly one third of the book. Helga set sail in Chapter Twelve and her fictional experiences were not unlike Washington’s cathartic ones. Larsen wrote that as Helga left New York City,

Leaning against the railing, Helga stared into the approaching night, glad to be at last alone, free of that great superfluity of human beings, yellow, brown, and black, which as the torrid summer burnt to its close, had so oppressed her. No, she hadn’t belonged there.

In a subsequent passage, Crane expressed anxiety about segregation,

Almost at once it was time for dinner. Somewhere a bell sounded. She turned and with buoyant steps went down. Already she had begun to feel happier. Just for a moment, outside the dining-salon, she hesitated, assailed with a tiny uneasiness which passed as quickly as it had come. She entered softly, unobtrusively.

Later Larsen wrote, “But even the two rough days found her on deck, revelling like a released bird in her returned feeling of happiness and freedom, that blessed sense of belonging to herself alone and not to a race.” But, once on European soil, a few travelers encountered racist treatment. Fisk University Professor Giles Hubert sailed to Europe in 1936, the year before his trip to Denmark, with a group of students. Once they arrived in London, Hubert and two other African Americans were denied entry to the hotel reserved by Cunard. In protest, the entire group left the hotel to find other accommodations.

In 1931 recent Fisk University graduates and cousins Flaurience Sengstacke and Roberta G. Thomas went on a whirlwind trip to Europe funded by their uncle Robert Sengstacke Abbot, the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender. They wrote a column about their European adventures for his paper. In “Girls Tell How to Get Ready for Trip Abroad: It Doesn’t Cost Much to Travel if You Prepare Properly, They Say,” they described how to get passports and visas, how to save money in preparation for the trip, get travelers checks and letters of credit, and book passage on a steam ship at varying rates.

On July 17, 1931 they boarded the steamship Conte Bianamono, which they described as “one of the largest Italian liners.” They recalled that as they set sail, “Oh, what a day. Who could forget it? There were tears, cheers, handshakes, waves, kisses, flowers and the clouds even showered us as we departed from old New York.” They also anticipated experiencing racism onboard the ship.


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Their transatlantic crossing took 10 days. They wrote, “every day was filled with sunshine and pleasurable activities and every night filled with moonlight and dancing…We took a part with the others in every activity on the ship, and had some wonderful times. Our dining room steward and waiter saw to it that our every need was fulfilled.” The cousins described their onboard activities, “For eight days we glided along, playing, dancing, singing, sunning ourselves on the beautiful sun deck, watching the wake made by the ship and doing a million other things.”

But once they arrived on land in Europe they had an unpleasant encounter. While traveling in Italy with African American students from Hampton University they ran into what they labeled in a headline, “A familiar act in a strange setting.” The sub-heading was, “Tourists Run Into an Old Texas Custom in a Dining Car, but Somehow or Other It Doesn’t Work.” They described the incident,

From Florence to Venice we had a very familiar experience — familiar in the United States but unfamiliar in Europe. While eating in the dining car on our way to Venice a small group of students from Texas entered the dining car and seeing that we had the choicest seats, came up to us and said, ‘You have our seats; we ordered these.’ Thinking that we were in the wrong seats, we got up and they hurriedly sat in them and began laughing and saying unpleasant things. When we found what we were up against we 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!

They later encountered the same group while in St. Mark’s Square. They reported, “The poor little Texans were shocked when they saw us sitting in the square. ‘Why,’ said one, ‘we do not allow them to do that in Texas.’ Someone yelled, ‘Remember, brother, you are not in Texas,’ and they behaved themselves from then on.”

They chronicled their return transatlantic crossing in “America Welcomes Travelers at the End of World Trip: Young Writers Tell of Pleasant Voyage Home Aboard Steamer Bremen,” which they called the “fastest liner afloat.” After touring London, the cousins traveled by a tender for an hour to board the S. S. Bremen in Southampton, England for their return journey to New York City. Each class, first, second and third and tourist, entered the ship by a separate door. (Cunard no longer uses class designations like first or third. I was in the Britannia class — sounds nice, right? It was essentially third class.)

The cousins were assigned to a cabin, a table for dining, and deck chairs. The ship reminded them of a castle:

The walls in the different rooms are beautifully decorated with rich furniture, paintings, carvings… Nothing was more enjoyable that to sit in a cozy corner of the beautiful library with a good book and read undisturbed, lounge in the cozy lounging room, play games in the well-furnished game room, dance in the beautiful ball room, see moving pictures in the theater room.”

They said,

Service on the ship was prompt and in unison. Each morning we were awaken by the strains of some lovely German song which told us that it was time to get up and get ready for breakfast. We were served five meals a day on the ship, three meals in the dining room and two on deck. The meals were very good. You could order almost anything you could think of and you received more than enough in your order… Beer and wine were plentiful and Americans got their share.

The cousins wrote, “The days passed quickly because of the many activities aboard. After each meal everyone took walking tours on the promenade deck, five times around, which measured a mile.” In comparison, three times around the Queen Mary 2 deck equaled a mile.

Continuing,

Deck games and amusements occupied a great deal of the time between meals. Some were playing deck gold, other deck tennis, while some were playing cards in the public rooms, the lounge and smoking rooms, while still others were reading and writing in the library. Newspapers containing the latest radio news from the shore and passing steamers were issued free of charge every day.

Then, “During the morning hours a musical concert was rendered on deck. After the coffee hour a movie was enjoyed and horse racing was quite the thing until supper time. At night after supper a dance was the closing day’s feature. Some of the dances were held on deck. The deck was screened and gayly (sic) lighted during the dance.

They were greeted in New York City by friends and family as captured in a photograph published in the Chicago Defender, “Editor’s Nieces Back from Abroad.” While the cousins had a fun-filled return crossing, other African Americans had more traumatic returns later, as they fled Europe during World War II.

***

Husband and wife dance duo Ola and Eddie Alston were set to perform in Esbjerg, Denmark the day it was accidentally bombed in September 1939 early in WWII. After the British passenger ship S.S. Athenia was torpedoed by a German submarine resulting in the loss of lives, they spent months trying to leave Denmark because passenger ships were not sailing frequently. There were fears that the Nazis would invade Denmark, which came to fruition on April 9, 1940. Luckily, Ola and Eddie were passengers on the S.S. Drottningholm as it left Gothenburg, Sweden on January 19, 1940, arriving in New York City on January 29, 1940. But not every African American was able to leave Denmark before the Nazi occupation.

In June 1942 jazz musician Valaida Snow walked down the gangplank of the S.S. Gripholm, a Swedish liner conscripted to transport civilians and prisoners of wars back to the United States. The headline read, “Nazi Internment Over.” She gripped the hand of the reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American and declared, “I never was so glad to get back to America. Honestly, I never really appreciated my country and my people until now.” She gave numerous interviews about her dreadful experiences in a Danish prison.

Fisk University Professor Giles Hubert sailed to Europe in 1936, the year before his trip to Denmark, with a group of students. Once they arrived in London, Hubert and two other African Americans were denied entry to the hotel reserved by Cunard.

Harvard graduate Class of 1935 alum Reed Peggram spent nearly two years imprisoned in a Nazi camp in Italy. He fell in love with a Dane, Gerdh Hauptmann, while studying in Paris in 1938 at the Sorbonne. In 1939 they fled to Denmark and resided there for seven months before returning to Paris to retrieve their luggage. They went to Florence, Italy, and were captured there by the Nazis. They later escaped. Peggram departed Europe alone on the hospital ship Algonquin from Naples, Italy, arriving in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 14, 1945. He was hospitalized for four years in a mental institution following a nervous breakdown. A life that had begun under modest circumstances soared at Boston Latin School and later at Harvard, where he obtained a BA and a master’s. He was enrolled in a PhD program at Harvard when he was captured in Europe. He spent the rest of his life sitting in his apartment, surrounded by books. His promising life gave way to one of loneliness and sadness.

After the war, many African Americans returned to Europe. In 1951, Julliard-trained classical concert pianist Eugene Haynes set sail on a 10-day crossing on the American Banker for Paris to study piano. Haynes was afraid that he would be racially shunned. He wrote to his mother, “Well dear, here I am at last in the City of Lights! I know you were horrified at my sailing on Friday the thirteenth. The crossing was mostly pleasant — only one serious bout of sea sickness.” He told his mother that he had always wanted to go to Denmark and was surprised that his first trip abroad was to France. But once in Paris, he befriended Danish students who invited him to Denmark where, after reading Seven Gothic Tales, he became friends with Isak Dinesen or Karen Blixen during the last 10 years of her life. During repeated trips to Denmark he lived in the cottage of her assistant Clara Svendsen, in the coastal town of Dragør. Haynes returned to Denmark in December 1956 on what was called the Christmas ship, “the steamer which lands its joyful passengers just in time to celebrate at home.”

***

In contrast with the cousins’ departure, my own cousin Kevin drove me and my siblings Darren and Denise from my mother’s apartment in New Jersey to the Queen Mary 2. We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, where I caught my first glimpse of the ship from the front passenger seat. They unceremoniously dropped me off — refusing to pay for parking despite my offer to cover the cost. They took a few pictures and left. I later realized that there really was not an opportunity for waving bon voyage like you see in the movies. I entered a cavernous room and waded through a massive queue to check-in and receive my room keycard. The keycard also served as a sort of credit card for any incidentals purchase on the ship which the company preferred to keep a cash-free environment. I entered the ship from inside the building and found my luggage was miraculously waiting outside my cabin. There was an immediate, mandatory session at our assigned muster stations for a demonstration of how to put on a life jacket. I was on the 300th crossing of the Queen Mary 2. To commemorate this occasion, a helicopter flew overhead to take pictures as the ship made its way past the Statue of Liberty. It was soon time for my first dinner. I signed up for the early seating at 6pm. I was assigned a table to eat at all week. I shared it with a married couple and the brother of the wife. The last tablemate was a widower who had raised his daughters alone after his wife had died young. He was going to England to see his daughter who was getting married in Italy.

The food was very fancy and we did not always know exactly what was on the menu. For example, I learned that Steak Diane is not pronounced like a woman’s name and that there is no reason to tell the waiter what temperature you want the meat to be — it is already cooked. There were a few formal nights for which you were required to wear fancy clothes in the formal dining room. I wore my cocktail dresses and one $65 ice blue sequined gown — thank you Nordstom Rack!

Although I could not exactly replicate the experiences of the people in my book manuscript, we almost had one thing in common — lack of the Internet for entertainment. I signed up for the minimum Internet package of two hours for $47.95. I could not believe that I only used the internet for two hours for a week — and I did not miss being connected, nor anything that was important.

The ship was filled with activities that kept me occupied all week. Every evening I received a newsletter outside my cabin’s door with the next day’s events, entertainment, and movie information listed. There was also a 10,000-book library, and an informal eating space where you could get coffee and read or write. You could walk around the deck when it was too cold or windy. There was a gym and a spa too.

I participated in Trivia Night at the bar after dinner one evening — my team consisted of a travel writer, two other professors, and me. We were terrible. The most common professions of the people I encountered on the ship were engineer and professor. Other after dinner activities included live performances. A Black British woman sang Motown songs and a Bob Dylan song. A flute player (her preferred term) played songs from movies like FrozenBeauty and the Beast, and shockingly Titantic. The songs were accompanied by scenes from the movies and although they did not show the Titanic going down they showed scenes of people running for their lives. Very inappropriate. When I told people I was going on a crossing (apparently it is not called a cruise), several people mentioned what I call the T-word. I also saw an elaborate dance routine one night, and two tenors singing, on another. The entertainment was a little cheesy, but entertaining, and enthusiastically performed. I watched people dance at a 1920s themed ball and later discovered that Garrison Keillor was on the same ship, after he wrote about his experiences.

Other activities included tea service, where the waiters came out in white jackets as a group and a quartet played music while we ate tea sandwiches and scones. I attended a planetarium show and promptly fell asleep after the lights turned low and I tilted my seat back. I stayed away from the casino, but did play bingo in the bar one afternoon so I could tell my mother about the experience, since she enjoys playing. A section of the ship had games you could play, including a chessboard. At the higher brow end, I attended lectures about modern and contemporary art and the history of Cunard.

Despite their fears, many African Americans traveling across the Atlantic Ocean during the first half of the 20th century did not encounter racism on their journeys. Despite my own expectations about facing microaggressions on the Queen Mary 2, that did not happen to me either.

According to the notes of the travel writer I met at the Captain’s cocktail party there were 2,494 passengers from 36 nations on this voyage. The majority were Americans, followed closely by the British. There was just one Chinese person — a woman I befriended, a Comparative Literature professor at the University of South Carolina. We met at a meeting for people traveling alone.

The captain of course did not announce the demographics of the passengers by race, but I believed that I only encountered one other African American. An older woman gave me the Black nod greeting, said hello, but kept walking. I met a family of Black Canadians — the mother was retired college professor originally from Jamaica. I met a mixed-race British man, a former detective who sued for homophobia and racial discrimination and wrote a book about his experiences. The nightclub band and DJ were Black and sounded British when I passed them late one evening. I was surprised to see so few Black crew members. I spotted at least one Black woman working in housekeeping — the majority of that staff were Filipino. The waitstaff in the dining halls included other Filipinos and people from India. I saw one Black man working in King’s Court, the informal cafeteria.

In a hallway honoring celebrities who sailed on Cunard, there were three African Americans featured — Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey. Duke Ellington’s son, jazz musician Mercer Ellington, lived and died in Copenhagen, and is included in my book. Ella Fitzgerald moved to Klampenborg, Denmark on the Danish Riviera in the early 1960s, intending to make that her home base. She had fallen in love with a Danish man. The romance did not last and she packed up her furniture and returned to the United States after a few years.

The blackest thing about the ship was the selection of nightly films. I saw Black Panther and Proud Mary. The two films seemed like odd choices for a group of passengers who tended to be quite elderly and very white. But I was happy to watch both while dressed in my fancy outfits.

***

Despite their fears, the African Americans traveling across the Atlantic Ocean during the first half of the 20th century whom I’ve mentioned in this essay did not encounter racism on their journeys. Booker T. Washington noted:

from the captain down to the most humble servant, we were treated with the greatest kindness. Nor was this kindness confined to those who were connected with the steamer; it was shown by all the passengers also. There were not a few Southern men and women on board, and they were as cordial as those from other parts of the country.

Classical pianist Eugene Haynes initially was isolated when he went to the dining room but he told his mother, “There were only twelve at dinner, the steward seated me at a table to myself. Within minutes, other passengers, as many as could fit around the table, joined me. This took care of ‘segregation’ on the high seas!” Cousins Roberta and Flaurience found on their voyage to Europe that, “There was not an inch of prejudice — everyone was friendly.”

Despite my own expectations about facing microaggressions on the Queen Mary 2, that did not happen to me either. Perhaps my status as a passenger marked me as someone who belonged, in terms of education and social class. For the African Americans traveling in the early 20th century, the ships and the Atlantic Ocean served as liminal spaces where they could throw off the vestiges of the racism and the stress of living as a Black person in the United States as they transitioned on their way to Europe. The ship was one space where they could practice living with dignity as full-fledged citizens.

Bibliography

  1. Thomas, Roberta G., and FLAURIENCE L. SENGSTACKE. “Thrills that Come Once in a Lifetime Greet Travelers through Romantic Italy.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Dec 10, 1932. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/492433048?accountid=465
  2. Thomas, Roberta G. and FLAURIENCE L. SENGSTACKE. 1933. “America Welcomes Travelers at End of World Trip.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Apr 15, 11. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/492426956?accountid=465.
  3. Thomas, Roberta G. and FLAURIENCE L. SENGSTACKE “Girls Tell how to Get Ready for Trip Abroad.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Apr 22, 1933. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/492416400?accountid=465
  4. “Editor’s Nieces Back from Abroad.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967): 22. Sep 04 1932. ProQuest. Web. 26 Feb. 2016.
  5. Nazis Free Actress Valaida, Freed by Nazis, Back in U.S.” 1942. Afro-American (1893-1988), Jun 13, 1.
  6. Migel, Parmenia. Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen. New York: Random House, 1967, p. 194.

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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.

Editor: Sari Botton