Many influential African American theorists, scientists, musicians, singers, performers, and writers gravitated towards Berlin and other German metropolitan centers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, long before the outbreak of the Second World War. The long list of their names would include Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, and Jesse Owens, and many more.
To give but two examples, as a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women, in 1896 Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African American women to earn a college degree in the United States of America. But her studies were not limited to American soil. Her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, includes many chapters on experiences studying at the Humboldt University in Berlin, including her participation in the International Women’s Congress in 1904, where she was not only the sole Black delegate but also the only participant to deliver her speech to the congress in three languages.
Any student of the African American community and its history is familiar with the African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Pan African Congress. As an American Du Bois protested against lynching, the Southern Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in whatever form it took. As a proponent of Pan-Africanism he supported solidarity within African and African-Diasporic communities in general, and African and Asian struggles against colonialism and imperialism in particular.
His paper The Philadelphia Negro (1899) would be the first sociological study of the African-American community in print. In his influential text The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois would take a forceful stance against Booker T. Washington and other’s who advocated a policy of accommodation in the face of oppression. Du Bois would call instead for, “ceaseless agitation and insistent demand for equality,” and the “use of force of every sort: moral suasion, propaganda, and where possible even physical resistance.”
As a brilliant writer, speaker, and activist Du Bois was the outstanding African-American intellectual of his time. Born in Massachusetts in 1868, (three short years after the end of the American Civil War, and just a few short months after Congress finally guaranteed black male suffrage through it would take a hundred more for it to become a reality) Du Bois would graduated from Fisk University and Harvard University. He became the first African American to receive the degree of doctor of philosophy from Harvard, and would spend two influential years studying in Berlin.
He studied in Berlin in the 1890’s with some of the nation’s most prominent social scientists, including Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner and Heinrich von Treitschke. The “Berlin Years,” as Du Bois came to call them, were highly influential and many consider them a coming of age moment for the young intellectual.
After returning to the United States, Du Bois went on to complete his graduate studies, becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. But like a moth drawn to the light of a former flame he would later return to Germany in the 1930s, and took note of the rising wave of German discrimination, racism, and anti-Semitism sweeping its way across the nation he had once known so well. Racism and anti-Semitism were by no means new to Germany, but the wave was taking on a new more violent form.