Garland Revue dancers in floral costume, 1930.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

African American Performers 1877-1933

by Deborah Pomeranz

From the Jubilee Singers to Jazz: Musicians, Dancers and Variety Artists in Berlin

“The rhythm of our time is the Blues.” Louis Douglas penned this claim in 1926, in the first issue of Berlin’s newest culture magazine Revue des Monats. There was perhaps no one better positioned than he to describe the city’s changing rhythms: originally from Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA), Douglas had been touring Europe as a singer, dancer, actor, comic, choreographer, dramatist, and producer since 1903. Through his father-in-law, Berlin-trained composer and conductor Will Marion Cook, Douglas was even familiar with the local music scene of the 1880s.
Louis Douglas and Marion Cook, 1927. From: Das Illustrierte Blatt 15, 1927, p. 410.
Stadtmuseum Berlin Collection | Photo: Baruch.

Douglas’ article would have come as no surprise to those who had, over the course of the previous half-century, bought a songbook of German-translated spirituals, danced the Cakewalk in a Ballsaal, seen an all-Black revue in the variety theaters, or visited a jazz club in the Schöneberg neighborhood: Berlin’s culture, it was clear to those living within it, was fundamentally influenced by African American artists.

“The rhythm of our time is the Blues.”
Louis Douglas, 1926
The Jubilee Singers in the Singakademie, Berlin. From: Daheim, Vol. XV, No. 30, 1878.
Public Domain via Universität Potsdam.

Sensation from overseas

In fall 1877, the Fisk Jubilee Singers embarked on a tour of Germany. For ten months, they traveled the empire, raising money for newly established Fisk University, which educated liberated African Americans in Nashville (Tennessee, USA).  The tour was enormously successful, and the Jubilee Singers sang in the central Berlin Cathedral, historic Singakademie, even for the royal family in Potsdam. The performances, songbooks, and not least the fascinated press coverage introduced a broad swath of Berliners to (adapted) spirituals and the African American musical tradition for the first time. The masterful performances of the Jubilee Singers stood in contrast to the racist stereotypes of minstrel shows, in which actors in Blackface presented enslaved Black people as simplemindedly jolly, lazy, or mischievous.
Still, the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ German success was ambivalent, resting in part on a demeaning curiosity about their presumed otherness or even inferiority.
Entrance to the Singakademie, ca. 1885.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: F. Albert Schwartz

Their assumed racial difference was scrutinized and debated in conversations that provided ideological support for the German Empire’s expanding colonialism. Nevertheless, the Fisk Jubilee Singers returned several times, and inspired other ensembles, like the Clifton Jubilee Quintet or the Black Troubadours, to bring their music to the German capital.

African American community

By the end of the 19th century, the African American community in Berlin had grown and cemented its place in the city, organizing community events like an 1895 summer festival in the popular lakeside idyll Müggelschlößchen. In addition to the ensembles, classical musicians, opera singers, circus artists, and variety performers came to Berlin on tour.

Müggelschlößchen, postcard, ca. 1905.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | By: E. Weinland, Berlin

Here they enjoyed better pay and working conditions in comparison to the US, and some decided to stay long term. Outside of the music and entertainment industries, the career possibilities for Black people in Germany were extremely limited, which would not fundamentally change until the second half of the 20th century. So, the African American community in Berlin consisted predominately of artists and students.

Johnson and Dean, “Achwiesüss” [Ohhowsweet], ca. 1905.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | By: Georg Gerlach & Co., Berlin

A new dance

In October 1901, the dancers Dora Dean and Charles Johnson, newly arrived from New York City, made their Berlin debut in the Wintergarten Theater. Their costumes were luxurious, their movements exaggerated, their music syncopated. It was the Cakewalk, performed in the city in all likelihood for the first time. Originally, enslaved African Americans had developed the Cakewalk as a parody of the white, slaveholding upper class. Through Vaudeville, Cakewalk became popular throughout the US, before Black Americans brought the dance to Europe at the turn of the century.

The lavish dress and elegant self-presentation of the Cakewalkers, like the Jubilee Singers, stood in contrast to the still prevailing stereotypes from minstrel shows. In the years that followed, African American Cakewalkers like Johnson and Dean, David and Besie Banks, or Emma Harris and her Louisiana Troupe would make numerous appearances in Berlin’s best-known variety theaters.

The Anderson Siblings, 1903. The sisters Sadie, Rosie, and Fanny Anderson had been touring as acrobats since 1891.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Hoffmann & Fursch, Leipzig

The trendy Cakewalk was quickly appropriated by non-African American dancers in Berlin. Professionals incorporated it into their acts, and ballroom attendees learned the new social dance. Local studios began selling and producing ragtime records, Cakewalk’s accompanying musical style, which would go on to influence jazz. Cakewalk’s exaggerated gestures, elegant dress, and playful gender roles also made their mark far beyond music and dance, in fashion, advertising, and print culture.

Historic recording
Rufus’ Cake-Walk, ca. 1905

Cultural heritage from the Alps

Surrounded by the multidirectional cultural exchange and the market pressures of a cosmopolitan city, Black American performers in Berlin expanded their repertoires. Many borrowed from the cultural heritage of the Alps, a genre particularly popular with audiences. Arabella Fields specialized in German Lieder and Alpine folk songs (complete with yodeling), which she sang wearing a traditional Tracht.

The 4 Black Diamonds: The Transformation Singers, Dancers, and Comedians H.M. Johnson, Norris Smith, Walter Dixon and Pete Washington, after 1905.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
The variety quartet The Four Black Diamonds closed their act with a “Tirol-Number,” in which they danced the traditional Schuhplattler and improvised rhymes in Bavarian dialect.  Commercially successful, such acts were also part expression of cultural belonging, part parody of imagined cultural distinctions.

War-related exodus and return

With the beginning of World War I in 1914, the majority of African Americans left Berlin. Many, including Louis Douglas and the Black Diamonds, spent the war years in London. Johnson and Dean returned to the U.S; David and Besie Banks toured South America; Emma Harris became a film actress in Russia. Arabella Fields, now a German citizen, at first stayed in the country, but left for the neutral Netherlands in 1915.

After the war and the stabilization of German currency in 1924, many of these performers returned to Berlin. They were accompanied by a younger generation of African American artists, including many important musicians of the Jazz Age, such as Sidney Bechet and Buddy Gilmore. The flourishing African American press covered their experiences in Europe with interest from across the Atlantic.
The musicians Buddie Gilmore and Martha Gilmore née Brown, Berlin, ca. 1925.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: R. Sennecke

Comeback of the “All Black Revue”

This was the high point of Black revues, led by producers like Louis Douglas and Will Garland, who had first developed these touring variety shows inspired by New York’s Black musical theater scene, as well as by minstrelsy, operetta, and Cakewalk, at the start of the century. In borrowing from the tropes of minstrel shows and the colonial visual lexicon of human zoos, the revues both parodied and reproduced the racism of the period’s popular entertainment.

Garland Revue dancers in floral costume, Hamburg, 1930.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Their heyday was ushered in by dancer Josephine Baker, whose European debut in 1925 featured Douglas as the male lead. Building on its success, Douglas wrote two new Black revues, “Black People” and “Louisiana”, which he premiered in Berlin in 1926 and 1929.

The actor Louis Brody, ca. 1930. From: Tobias Nagl, Die unheimliche Maschine – Rasse und Repräsentation im Weimarer Kino, München: edition text kritik, 2009), p. 565.
© Tobias Nagl | Photo: Yva, Berlin
Alongside African Americans, these revues engaged Black performers from Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa. Cameroonian-German actor Louis Brody, for example, was in the cast of “Black People” before producing his own revue, “Sonnenaufgang im Morgenland”, “Sunrise in Morningland”. “Sonnenaufgang” premiered in Kliems Ballroom, a hub of the labor movement, starred Black German actress Helen Allen, and retold African history with jazz accompaniment.

Artists’ network

As these revues demonstrate, Black artists increasingly built networks across their differences – in language, experiences of German colonialism, (non-)citizenship and associated rights – in the 1920s. Black actors were particularly well organized. Their hub was café on Friedrichsstaße, the center of the film industry, where performers would mingle, sharing jobs and industry tips. For the convenience of directors looking for talent, they organized a card index, presumably kept at the Wintergarten Central Café. Still, the majority of roles available to Black actors, and indeed non-white actors in general, remained one-dimensional, built on exotification and racist stereotype.
Entrance to the Wintergarten Café in the Hotel Central, 1936.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: H. Mederer

End of an era

In the early years of National Socialism, Black actors could still perform in these stereotypical roles, as propaganda for the Nazi’s racial ideology. Jazz, on the other hand, was condemned as a “degenerate” product of Black and Jewish culture. In the face of increasing state repression, the majority of African Americans, enabled by their US passport, fled Germany. Louis Douglas and Marion Cook moved to Paris, leaving behind the city in which they had made a career as artists amidst an ambivalent interplay of liberties and constraints, self-expression and exotification, community and isolation, success and rejection, fame and obscurity.

Further Reading:

Robbie Aitken / Eve Rosenhaft. Black Germany. The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, 1884-1960. Cambridge, 2013.

Frederike Gerstner. Inszenierte Inbesitzsnahme. Blackface und Minstrelsy in Berlin um 1900. Stuttgart, 2017.

Jeffrey Green et al. Black Europe. Holste-Oldendorf, 2013.
Astrid Kusser. Körper in Schieflage. Tanzen im Strudel des Black Atlantic um 1900. 2013, Bielefed.

Rainer Lotz. Black People. Entertainers of African Descent in Europe, and Germany. Bonn, 1997.

Temi Odumosu/Hilke Thode-Arora/Natasha A. Kelly/Laetitia Lai. “Unterhaltungskultur”. In: Kirchner und Nolde.

Expressionismus. Kolonialismus. München, 2021, S. 138-195.
Paulette Reed-Anderson. Eine Geschichte von mehr als 100 Jahren. Die Anfänge der Afrikanischen Diaspora in Berlin. Berlin, 1995.

Kira Thurman. “Singing the Civilizing Mission in the Land of Bach; Beethoven; and Brahms: The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nineteenth-Century Germany.” In: Journal of World History, 27:3, 2016, S. 443-471.

Black Central Europe: