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Experience 1930s Europe Through the Words of Two African American Women

Five years before the publication of the first Negro Motorist Green Book—the beloved guide of destinations deemed safe for African Americans in a nation segregated by Jim Crow—two cousins named Roberta G. Thomas and Flaurience Sengstacke chronicled what life was like for two young, African American women traveling abroad. Published in the pages of the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper published by their uncle Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the cousins’ columns regaled readers with tales of the duo’s travels throughout Europe, as recounted in some 20 articles penned between July 1931 and August 1932. They experienced highs, like watching the indelible Josephine Baker perform in Paris, and lows, including an encounter with racism on an Italian train ride. The pair’s words bore auspicious warning, particularly as they witnessed the rise of “oppression and paranoia” during the dying days of Germany’s Weimar Republic.

By sharing stories with the largely black readership of the Defender, the cousins sparked remembrance of fond memories among those who had similarly traveled abroad and provided an escapist fantasy for those who had “not yet seen the grandeur that is Europe.” The Defender, like other black newspapers at the time, used overseas correspondents to report on news, encouraging those traveling abroad as performers, tourists and students to report on their experiences. Rather than focusing exclusively on local or domestic issues, the publication hoped to establish African Americans’ presence on the world stage.

Hilary Mac Austin, author of the journal article “The Defender Brings You the World,” writes that this coverage “was an essential element in the cosmopolitan identity” of the black elite. The cousins’ European adventures signaled to readers that grand tours of Europe weren’t limited to upper-class white women, but were also accessible to African American travelers.

According to Ethan Michaeli’s The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, the newspaper catered to a diverse audience of laborers, maids, students, churchgoers, theatergoers, business owners and unemployed individuals affected by the Great Depression. It boasted an array of notable advertisers, including Madam C.J. Walker, one of the country’s wealthiest African American entrepreneurs, and despite its Chicago-centric title, reached a widespread audience. Abbott shrewdly recruited Pullman porters to supplement their income by distributing the Defender on trains traveling throughout the United States and signing up new subscribers.

Read entire article at Smithsonian Magazine