by Reginald Smith

Switzerland has long been known as a land of freedom. It was one of the first areas of Europe to break the yolk of feudal serfdom after successfully pulling out of the orbit of the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburgs. It continued this tradition as a refuge for Protestants fleeing persecution in France and southern Germany. It is also the most famous internationally neutral nation in the world which makes it a magnet for the rich from around the globe. Ironically, Switzerland’s neutrality, borne of a devastating defeat in Italy in the 16th century and its neutrality in the Thirty Years’ War the following century, was not always so pure. In fact, much of the riches that led to Swiss banking came from the money that flowed in as thousands of its sons served as renowned mercenaries for France and others like the Pope.

Importantly for Black travelers, Switzerland was never a participant of any comparative magnitude in the African slave trade or colonialism. It thus avoided much of the conflicts and oppressive policies that these institutions led to in other European nations and their colonies. It also has a long experience with multicultural co-existence with a decentralized federal government and four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansch. While it has never been a huge magnet for Black Expats such as a France or Germany, it has had its own residents, famous or not, that made Switzerland their temporary home.

Black expats in each country tend to have their own distinct background depending on the causes of migration. In Germany, many have military backgrounds and originally arrived as part of the US military presence there. France has traditionally had a more literary group ranging from writers, to jazz musicians and singers, to artists. Switzerland more closely fits the latter mold. There was never a large scale migration of expats to Switzerland but it became a favored home of many with the means and desire to seek out a relatively peaceful area that was relatively free from much of the prejudice in their home country.

Opera singers Gloria Davy as Aida (l) and Margaret Tynes (r) photos by Carl Van Vechten.

In the 1950s and 1960s there were famous singers and performers such as New York Metropolitan Opera singer Gloria Davy and Margaret Tynes who married a Swiss banker and German industrialist respectively. Ruth Stewart, a soprano from the US received a Fulbright Scholarship for two consecutive years in 1952 and 1953 and performed across Switzerland and Italy. One of the most famous Black residents was E. Sims Campbell, the famous cartoonist for both Playboy and Esquire who lived with his wife and daughter in the village of Neerach in rural Switzerland for 14 years to escape the ‘rat race’ back home. His art was prominent in these famous magazines even though most readers had no idea he was Black. His daughter, Elizabeth Campbell, also became a successful model in the 1960s and 1970s in Switzerland.

E.Sims Campbell renowned cartoonist who’s work featured in Esquire and Playboy magazines.

Famous jazz and soul greats also emigrated to Switzerland. Though not Black, but rather Jewish, Norman Granz the long-time manager for Ella Fitzgerald made his permanent residence in Geneva. Singers Nina Simone, Grace Bumbry, and later Tina Turner all also had primary residences in Switzerland for a time.

Not only entertainment but business brought many Black expats to Switzerland. The February 1985 edition of Black Enterprise chronciles a Lloyd Allen Freeman a vice president and director in the commodities trading division of Chase Manhattan in Geneva. Another star in his profession, Dr. Joseph M. Togba of Liberia served as president of the Seventh World Health Assembly under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1954.

Singers Nina Simone, Grace Bumbry, and Tina Turner all had primary residences in Switzerland for a time.

Like many other nations, Switzerland has a storied history of both famous and ordinary Black expats blazing a trail in both their own lives and for others that come after them. With some of the world’s best universities, most dynamic companies from banking to pharmaceuticals to machinery, and a charming environment overall. Switzerland should be on the list of all Black expats, if only for a short visit.

Additional photo credits:  E. Sims Campbell: portrait,  illustration – Wikimedia, Nina Simone – Roland Godefroy, Grace Brumby – US Federal government, Tina Turner – Helge Øverlås


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