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by Reginald Smith

When I first started this column in our first issue, I was worried about how long it would last given the difficulty I originally had on finding documentation on historical Black Expats around the world. Every quarter though it seems I find something new and interesting to bring up and I have at least a year of stories left!

Scandinavia is known to most as the home of blondes, great manufacturers like Volvo & SKF as well as the epitome of social democracy. Scandinavia traditionally includes a core of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Finland and Iceland are sometimes included due to geography and culturally similarity respectively. Up there in the cold, part of of which is in the Arctic circle, it may seem the last place to have Black expats historically but this was definitely not the case. For many reasons, Scandinavia has typically been viewed very highly by Blacks and has been a favored destination by the few whom have come to experience it.

Part of the reason is historical. The Scandinavian countries had very little participation in either the slave trade or colonialism so there was no historical friction or source of conflict between either peoples. On the other hand, there were not many Blacks there until recently unlike other countries with footholds in the New World or Africa. Queen Lovisa of Sweden had a servant (name “Badin” or “rascal”) with a special position in the court who had originally hailed from the Danish West Indies. A later and more detailed note comes from a Black American, William S. Brooks, who took a voyage to Sweden which he documents in his 1899 book “What a Black Man Saw in a White Man’s Country”. In 19th century Sweden he received much attention, especially as he had docked in the non-cosmopolitan city of Gothenburg. Many people asked him questions about his origins and appearance out of curiosity and he was even granted a royal audience by the king.

Most later information we have comes from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. There was a surge of interest in Scandinavia from Black expats for a variety of reasons. First, Scandinavia was seen as a relative haven from racial hostility and many self-exiled Black Americans went there in addition to other areas of Europe. They were a broad group but they typically included writers and artists such as Arthur Hardie, GIs with the US military either stationed in Norway or on leave from Germany, some US Army deserters from Vietnam in Sweden as chronicled in a 1968 Ebony article, professionals, and US ambassadors Jerome Holland and Terence Todman, ambassadors to Sweden and Denmark respectively.

US Army deserters Terry Whitmore (l) and Paul Taylor (r) shown with their Swedish fiancees

Scandinavia, then as now, had a reputation for being relatively open and left-leaning. This attracted artist types but also those with left political leanings. The Army deserters were safe in Sweden as it was neutral on the Vietnam issue. The Ebony article by Ulf Nilson says of 80 US Army deserters there, 14 were black including a Jay Wright of Louisiana and Donell Williams of Chicago. The deserters formed a loose self-help committee affiliated with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the US. Some militant activists from the US (Eldridge Cleaver) even attempted unsuccessfully to flee to Denmark as well since Denmark did not extradite those guilty of political crimes. However, it was ruled that they were not ruled political refugees and they did not receive asylum.

Many professionals were also attracted by opportunities they were denied at home at the time. Dean Dixon, who became the first Black to lead the New York Philharmonic in a regular subscription concert in 1970 spent almost 21 years in Sweden conducting orchestras from the 1950s. In addition, Weisbord’s 1972 article refers to an unnamed Black American biochemist who was a member of the Danish Medical Society.

Two Black ambassadors have served in Scandinavia. In 1971, President Richard Nixon appointed. Jerome Holland ambassador to Sweden. Holland was a former football All-American with a PhD in Sociology. Terence Todman, appointed to Denmark in 1983 by Ronald Reagan, had a 30 year career in the US Foreign Service. Jerome Holland had an interesting incident when he was jeered on his first day coming to the palace to meet the king. Various reports blame this on anti-American elements, either Swedes or left-leaning Black American exiles. However, he served out his post with dignity and did his best to represent America abroad. Todman served in not one but four ambassadorial appointments besides Denmark including Costa Rica, Chad, Guinea, and Spain.

Former US ambassadors (l) Jerome Holland depicted arriving in Sweden, (r) Terence Todman

The expat population was never large, especially compared with somewhere like Paris, but substantial enough to form a small sort of community. There were even hangouts in each country at that time which were the “Black spots” namely the Casa Nova in Copenhagen, the Golden Circle in Stockholm, and the Colony Club and West Indian Club in Oslo. These nations weren’t perfect and incidents and issues were known, however, most interviews seemed to consistently show a positive attitude towards the countries by expats there.

From the 1950s, the demographics of these countries began to change as many immigrant laborers or refugees arrived from countries like Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, or Somalia. Right now Sweden has a population of about 12% with at least one immigrant parent. In some cities like Malmo, the third largest, this population is as high as 40%. Therefore Sweden is now engaged in a debate like many European countries over integration and identity. Different than many European nations, the size of the backlash in the rise of far right parties has not been as strident.

After the Civil Rights movement and opportunity opened up in the US, the composition of Black expats changed. Though it would be difficult to say if there was an increase or decrease, more people went for just jobs, travel, or family. One of our editors, Adrianne, is in this category as her fiancee is Swedish and she has settled near Stockholm.

More info:
Brooks, William S. What a Black Man Saw in a White Man’s Country—Some Account of a Trip to the Land of the Midnight Sun. Minneapolis: 1899.
Cheers, D.M. “Terence Todman: Top Diplomat Ambassador to Denmark”, Ebony February 1986 67-72.
Dunbar, Ernest The Black Expatriates: A Study of American Negroes in Exile. New York: E.P. Dutton 1968.
Nilson, Ulf “Deserters in Sweden” Ebony August 1968 120-122.
Weisbord, Robert G. “Scandinavia: A Racial Utopia?” Journal of Black Studies Vol 2. No. 4 June 1972 471-488
Photo credits: Expat feature montage – D. McCullough©, US army deserters Ebony August 1968, Dean Dixon – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection, Jerome Holland – Jonny Graan www.expressen.se/., Terence Todman – www.ned.org/

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