U.S. Blacks' Perceptions, Experiences, and Scholarship regarding Central and South America - 1822 to 1959
Fikes, Robert, Jr., Negro Educational Review
Instances of U.S. Black Americans having direct contact with the inhabitants of Central and South America, whose majority populations are not Black, can be traced back to the early nineteenth century. Slaves and freemen were aware of the possibility of a better life in these regions and a few found their way there to experience trials, disappointments, and successes. From the late 1800s well into the twentieth century the view held by Black Americans, in the main, was unrealistic and optimistic in terms of what these regions offered vis-à-vis the United States. Due largely to sobering reports of racism by visiting Black journalists and celebrities, and because of discriminatory anti-Black immigration policies, the long-held perception of tolerant, racially benign societies south of the border changed precipitously over the first half of the twentieth century.
Historically, the West Indies, with its large African descended population, the influence of mass media, and the direct intervention of the United States (U.S.) government, has been the often-cited region of the Western Hemisphere when discussions occur that associate people of African descent with those of Latin American ancestry (Davis, 1995; Fontaine, 1980; London, 1980; Oakley, 2001). Primarily, the awareness persons (i.e., Black Americans born in the United States and of African descent) have had over the past two centuries of Latin America (including Central and South America from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego) and their resulting perceptions and attitudes are based largely on their first-hand experiences and research. The testimony of ordinary Black citizens has added to widespread popular notions about the significance of race in these regions (Anonymous, 1832; Fleming, 1978; Hellwig, 1992; Neal, 1950; Tyler & Murphy, 1974). Impressions formed by Black journalists (e.g., Robert S. Abbott, Ollie Stewart, Joel A. Rogers, and George Schuyler) and academicians (e.g., E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke, and Irene Diggs) after visiting Central and South America exposed and helped to explain the intricacies of "race problems" that were crucial to changing general perceptions of many (Diggs, 1953; Frazier, 1942; Hellwig, 1992; Locke, 1944; Ottley, 1955; Schuyler, 1949).
Theoretically, when individuals experience race problems their perceptions change. For example, Carrillo's (2006) report about Afro-Latino leaders attending a conference to discuss racism and how it impacts Blacks in Latin America suggests that racial problems shape perceptions. Similarly, the continuing discussions about the impact of affirmative action on Black Americans provide information for shaping perceptions (Donahoo, 2006). Over the years Black Americans have experienced negative living conditions in the U.S., and following freedom from slavery many looked to Central and South America for a welcomed reprieve. My research has examined the intricacies of their migration to-and living conditions in-those regions. Moreover, I have explored the views and experiences of individuals as they moved from the U.S. to Central and South America. Overall, my specific goals were to examine the public opinions of U.S. Black Americans about residing in Central and South America and those governmental policies and racial incidents that persuaded Blacks to abandon their earlier notions of a harmonious racial landscape there (e.g., Fernandes 1969; Meade & Pirio, 1988; Vincent, 1997); and also to show the record of Black Americans' interest in and research about those regions.
Early Contacts: Laying the Groundwork, 1822-1900
The social, political, and artistic achievements of persons of African descent who inhabited Latin America (i.e., Afro-Latinos) have enjoyed growing attention from scholars and other professionals since the late 1960s (Minority Rights Group, 1995; Roman & Flores, 2003; Whitten & Torres, 1998; Vinson, 2006). Additionally, attention has been given to the evolving contours of Black American opinion and personal experiences in Central and South America that exceed physical and cultural ties to Afro-Latinos. Moreover, these ties surfaced around 1822 when freedom-craving slaves began arriving with their White masters in colonial Texas (Schwartz, 1974). By 1825 one fifth of the emigrants from the United States were Black slaves (Schwartz, 1974). Mexico (which had officially abolished slavery by 1829) found issues related to the introduction of these slaves (emancipation, the disposition of fugitives) a constant source of irritation that strained relations with the U.S.
The unsettled political terrain worked to the advantage of slaves and freedmen. News of a less restrictive environment in Texas facilitated the success of Felipe Elua, an ex-slave and prominent Bexar landowner, and wealthy Black Nacogdoches businessman William Goyen. Both were visited by the crusading Quaker journalist Benjamin Lundy in 1833 while he was canvassing Mexican-controlled Texas for possible "Negro colonization" (Schwartz, 1974). Lundy noted the relative freedom and progress some Blacks had enjoyed farther south in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in the city of Matamoras, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. He returned to Pennsylvania buoyed by the prospect of launching a colony, though this was adamantly opposed by many White abolitionists and by wary Blacks unfamiliar with the language, people, and traditions of a foreign country.
In the 1832 issue of the Liberator, the premier abolitionist journal, an anonymous Black woman from Philadelphia made a compelling case for Black immigration to Mexico. She wrote to the editor:
There is an independent nation, where indeed "all men are created free and equal," possessing those inalienable rights which our constitution guarantees. The climate is healthy and warm, and of course adopted to our nature; the soil is rich and fertile, which will contribute to our wealth; and there we may become a people of worth and respectability; whereas in this country we are kept poor, and of course, cannot aspire to anything more than what we always have been...I am informed that the population of Mexico is eight million of Colored, and one million of Whites; and by rapid growth of amalgamation amongst them, there is every probability it will ere long become one entire colored nation (Anonymous, 1832, p. 14).
Prior to the founding of the Republic of Texas in 1836, Mexico's blanket invitation to Black and White settlers to occupy and develop its northern territories, along with its refusal to return or discourage runaway slaves from crossing the border, caught the imagination and fueled the dreams of many Blacks. Lacking an "underground railroad" or formal communication apparatus, Blacks, particularly those in Texas and Louisiana, were nonetheless apprised of Mexico's safe haven from oppression to the extent that by 1855 as many as 4,000 slaves had risked everything to breach the border (Tyler & Murphy, 1974). Ex-slave Felix Haywood, interviewed in the 1930s, recalled the simple logic that prompted flight to Mexico:
There was no reason to run up North. All we had to do was to walk, but walk south, and we'd be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free. They didn't care what color you were, black, white, yellow, or blue. Hundreds of slaves did go to Mexico and got on all right. We would hear about them and how they were going to be Mexicans. They brought up their children to speak only Mexican (Tyler & Murphy, 1974, p. 69).
Another Black Philadelphian, Allen B. Light, a sailor, wound up a mercenary soldier in Mexican California in the army of Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado. He became a naturalized citizen of Mexico with a government appointment and by 1842 prospered by trapping otters in Baja California (Blanco, 2005). With an even stronger taste for adventure was the young Black ex-Union soldier George Washington Williams, who crossed over into Mexico in 1866 to join the republican forces as an artillery officer in the fight against the Emperor Maximillian. Williams learned enough Spanish to converse with people in Aguayo, Monterey, Queretaro, and other cities he passed through during his year-long enlistment (Franklin, 1985). Later as a minister, attorney, and historian, Williams authored the groundbreaking History of the Negro Race in America, 1619 to 1880 (Williams, 1883).
Following the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1847, the government of Mexico resumed its actions to destabilize Texas by giving sanctuary to runaways and encouraging free Black emigration as part of an unsuccessful effort to frustrate United States territorial expansion. The majority of the Black intelligentsia continued to oppose "emigrationism" as a viable alternative as did Frederick Douglass, the preeminent Black leader of his time, who believed that a tropical environment was not conducive to fruitful labor, that the Black man had earned the right to full citizenship in the United States and that "his attachment to the place of his birth is stronger than iron" (Quarles, 1968, p. 124). Moreover, the fledgling governments of Central and South America were reluctant to welcome large contingents of Black Americans since this risked interference in their affairs by the covetous behemoth to the north poised to enforce its imperialist doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Mexico's conflict with White Texans over the issue of escaped slaves, and its humiliation at the hands of the United States in the Mexican War (1846 to 1848) that ended in an enormous land grab, could easily be recalled. In spite of this, as early as 1852 respected leaders like physician-abolitionist Martin R. Delany were asking Blacks to seriously consider immigrating to Nicaragua and New Grenada (today Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and Colombia), where there were "opportunities for us to rise to the full stature of manhood" (Levine, 2003, p. 208). He elaborated:
Remember this fact, that in these countries, Colored men now fill the highest places in the country; and Colored people have the same chances there, that White people have in the United States. All that is necessary to do, is to go, and the moment your foot touches the soil, you have all the opportunities for elevating yourselves as the highest, according to your industry and merits (Levine, p. 208).
Around mid-century Black Seminoles, originally from Florida but more recently from the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, immigrated to Coahuila, Mexico. The Mexican government cleverly used the Black Seminoles to guard against hostile Comanche Indians and White outlaws. In 1857, Luis N. Fouche, a Black Floridian, was granted tax incentives, exemption from military service, and citizenship for a colony of 100 free Black families he called "Eureka" in the district of Tampico (Schwartz, 1974). That same year, 40 Blacks from New Orleans arrived in Veracruz. There they formed a colony at Tlacotalpan on land reserved by the Mexican government for them. Furthermore, they were welcomed by the local newspaper; it described them as "intelligent, moral, cultured" (p. 41) and never mentioned their racial characteristics. On the other hand, White businessman Aaron C. Burr and his lobbyist Anna E. Carroll failed in their attempt to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to support their scheme to settle freed Blacks in British Honduras in 1862. They felt, as did proponents of the American Colonization Society, that Blacks would be better off if they exited the United States (Coryell, 1997).
The success stories of runaway slaves and Black expatriates in Mexico were not the only hopeful news filtering back across the Rio Grande. Years and even decades before the United States ratified the 13th Amendment in 1865 to abolish slavery, independent states in Central and South America had abolished slavery without suffering the fratricidal bloodletting of a civil war. The general impression that greater liberty and opportunities were available in the Latin American countries further encouraged Black emigration from the United States in the post-Civil War era as they were emancipated but legally segregated and in peonage in the South. The pro-colonization sentiment briefly waned in the years immediately after the War, and there was renewed optimism that the condition of Blacks would improve. However, the setbacks of the Reconstruction period (reversal of federal land grants, institution of the "Black codes," loss of voting rights, the ascendance of White supremacy, and the terrorist Ku Klux Klan) helped to resuscitate the ambitions of White separatists in the American Colonization Society, and many Blacks were totally disillusioned with the promises of emancipation and liberal reform.
To both the idealistic nationalist and the business promoter, the attractiveness of Central and South America as places to establish a migrant colony lasted well into the next century. In 1893, Col. John M. Brown, a Kansas politician, boasted in the Washington Post that his seven-year campaign to interest fellow Blacks in buying land and shipping out to Brazil had finally caught on and that an unspecified number of the "most substantial Colored citizens" in Topeka would leave as soon as they could sell their local property (Brazil for Afro-Americans, 1893, p. 1; Redkey, 1969). Black San Antonio, Texas entrepreneur William H. Ellis believed the advantages of maintaining a colony in Mexico were its proximity to the United States and its being a more "civilized" place than Africa, by far the most popular destination of the emigrationists. Ellis' efforts in promoting the Mexican alternative lead several hundred Blacks from Alabama to move to Tlahualilo, Durango in the mid-1890s (Hales, 2005; Redkey, 1969).
The enterprises of Col. John M. Brown and William H. Ellis were not profitable. Theodore W. Troy, a Los Angeles real estate developer assisted by newspaper publisher Charlotta A. Bass and Harvard-trained attorney Hugh E. MacBeth, was more fortunate. His Lower California Mexican Land and Development Company was founded in 1919, around the time Blacks were traveling to Tampico to work in the oil fields. With his purchase of nearly 22,000 acres in the Vallecitos and Santa Clara valleys situated between the cities of Tecate and Ensenada in Baja, California, Troy's plan was to attract 200 Black families to farm the land, raise livestock, and sell part of their production in the region. The colonists were warmly received by Mexican officials, including President Alvaro Obregon, who met with some of their leaders in Mexico City in 1922 (Vincent, 1997). Widely publicized in the Black press, colonists answered the call from as far away as Oklahoma and Louisiana. They soon constructed three hotels, planted fruit orchards and grains, and raised pigs and goats. There were plans to build a health spa sanitarium, start a bank, and locate more colonies in the Mexican states of Luis Potosi and Morelos (Cuernavaca). Unfortunately, by the mid-1930s the Vallecitos and Santa Clara sites were in decline; they suffered from a lack of water, loss of a major buyer of their hay, and a new but distant coastal highway that further isolated them (Vincent, 1997). By the early 1960s the last of the colonists had departed, leaving only the legacy of interracial brotherhood and a grand experiment in Black American self-reliance.
Aside from the visionary attempts to found colonies of Black Americans abroad, there were the occasional stories of lone Blacks who benefited from their residence in Central and South America in the 1800s. One of these was composer Edmond Dede (1827-1903), a former prodigy on the violin and a free born Creole of African descent; he fled the stifling racism of New Orleans to study for a while in Mexico. Another talented composer during this period was pianist Charles Lucien Lambert, Sr. (1828-1896), a Creole from New Orleans who spent the later decades of his career in Brazil, where he tutored the famed Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth.
Few Black scholars were known to be knowledgeable about the history and people of Central and South America until the late 1800s. Brown's (1874) 552-page book The Rising Son, or, The Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race allots only three terse pages with minimal facts to South America and takes one hundred pages to discuss Haiti. The first Black reported to demonstrate a sustained scholarly interest in the regions was Ohio native Alfred O. Coffin; he earned his Ph.D. from Illinois Wesleyan University. His dissertation dealt with the ancient Indian mound builders in the Mississippi Valley. In a 35-page treatise titled The Origin of the Mound Builders, Coffin (1889) traced their origins back to southeastern Mexico. As a professor of Romance languages at Langston University in Oklahoma, Coffin ( 1896) also authored a 352-page travelogue, Land without Chimneys, or The Byways of Mexico. There he commented on his visits to Monterey, Mexico City, and Guadalajara with considerable background information on the history, religion, politics, economy, customs, and habits of the inhabitants. He even discussed at length Mexico's prehistoric ruins and speculated about links to the fabled civilization of Atlantis. These scholars provided contact information between Blacks and Latin Americans, particularly in Mexico. Such could have encouraged collective and individual migration, thereby giving freedom-yearning Blacks hope about what they could achieve in Central and South America. As will be demonstrated in discussions that follow, these initial contacts encouraged more migration and visits for cultural exchange, leisure, business, and scholarly research.
Later Contacts: Reinforcing Earlier Perceptions, 1900-1935
At the turn of the century, physician Rivers C. Frederick, discouraged by the lack of career options in the United States, moved to British Honduras (now Belize) where he practiced from 1901 to 1904; he became chief surgeon at a government hospital in El Rio Tan (Savitt, 1984). Frederick returned to his native Louisiana where he worked for fifty years as a highly respected physician affiliated with Flint Goodrich Hospital (Savitt, 1984). The pioneering Black rodeo cowboy Bill Pickett had his most challenging experience trying to introduce bulldogging to an angry, unappreciative crowd in Mexico City in 1908 (Hanes, 1977).
In 1916 the 10th Calvary Buffalo Soldiers who patrolled territory along the U.S.-Mexico border penetrated 500 miles into Mexico and distinguished themselves in battle in a punitive expedition against the bandit and revolution leader Pancho Villa (Home, 2005). Leading this Black squadron was Col. Charles Young, the highest-ranking Black military officer of his day. He was conversant in several languages and had authored the book Military Morale of Nations and Races (Young, 1912), in which sixteen pages were devoted to the military fitness, prowess, and history of the peoples of Central and South America. Regrettably, and in large part, Young's characterizations of the Latino fighting man was based on racial stereotypes. Still, he found much to admire in their martial spirit.
James N. Hughes, father of author Langston Hughes, disgusted with the racial climate in the United States, abandoned his wife and infant son. He arrived in Mexico in 1903 and worked as a private secretary to the general manager of a division of the Pullman Company. Visited only twice by his son, with whom he had a strained relationship, the elder Hughes owned a sizeable ranch in the forest mountains of Temescaltepec and a home in Mexico City, where he died in 1935. While in Mexico Langston Hughes was introduced to the young Mexican poets Carlos Pellicer, Xavier Villaurrutia, and Salvador Novo who later translated and published his poems. He wrote about some of his experiences in Mexico.
While in Toluca, he wrote four small prose pieces, three of which appeared in The Brownies Book, a magazine for children recently founded by W.E.B. Du Bois. In the first, he describes Mexican games such as Dona Blanca, translated as Lady White; In "A Mexican City" he narrates a market day in Toluca and some Mexican customs, like the Dia de los Santos Inocentes, which Hughes compares to April Fools Day; and in "Up to the Crater of an Old Volcano" he recounts an excursion to the Xinantcatl.. .Hughes also wrote for another magazine edited by Du Bois, Crisis, which published his brief account of the story of the Virgen de Guadalupe, and the only poem where Hughes treats a Mexican theme, "Mexican Market Woman," which appeared in 1922 (Gonzalez, 2004).
Lyricist and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, fluent in Spanish, was appointed U.S. Consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela in 1906. From there he was reassigned as Consul in Corinto, Nicaragua, a coastal port city facing the Pacific Ocean, where he represented American interests from 1909 to 1913. It was during his tenure abroad in the diplomatic corps that Johnson anonymously authored the novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (Johnson, 1912). In his own autobiography, Along This Way (Johnson, 1933), he described how he lived through political revolts. It is a little known fact that around this time there were several other Black U.S. Consuls facilitating foreign policy in places other than the customarily assigned African and Caribbean posts (Justesen, 2004). For example, John N. Ruffin was Consul in Asuncion, Paraguay from 1897 to 1907; Herbert R. Wright was Consul in Utila, Honduras from 1905 to 1908, then succeeded Johnson in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela in 1908 until he retired in 1917; journalist Jerome B. Peterson preceded Johnson in Puerto Cabello from 1904 to 1905; Henry C. Smith was U.S. Consul in Santos, Brazil for three years during the administration of President Grover Cleveland; and Henry W. Furniss, medical doctor from Indiana, was the American Consul in Bahia, Brazil from 1898 until 1905 (Christmas, 1966). Furniss, oddly enough, was also an amateur photographer who developed an interest in whaling. He used his own photos to illustrate an article he published in the Bulletin of the International Bureau of the American Republics titled "Whaling in Brazil" (Furniss, 1909).
After his service in the military, Henry O. Flipper, the first Black to graduate from West Point, became a respected authority on Spanish and Mexican land and mining laws. An expert translator and published author on the history of the Southwest and Spanish America, Flipper explored northern Mexico searching for the legendary Tayopa silver mine; this led to an American company operating in Mexico hiring him as a mining engineer and field manager. Later, Flipper served as an advisor to Sen. Albert B. Fall of New Mexico, dispatching reports on conditions in Mexico to assist the powerful politician in formulating foreign policy. In 1923, Flipper left government service and moved to Venezuela to work until the end of the decade as a translator, engineer, and legal consultant for the American-owned Pantepec Oil Company (Harris, 1997).
Also in the opening decades of the 20lh century, two Black boxing champions were active in Central and South America. Controversial heavyweight champion Jack Johnson fought a series of exhibition matches in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1914 and 1915; and from 1919 to 1926 he fought in Mexico in the cities of Juarez, Mexicali, Nogales, Mexico City where he owned real estate, and in Tijuana where he "presided over a ramshackle saloon and gambling place" called the Main Event (Ward, 2004, p. 401). Born in Macon, Georgia, Calvin Repress, one of Jack Johnson's sparring partners, toured Europe and went from there to Chile where he became that nation's heavyweight champion from 1917 to 1919. Repress lived in La Plata, Argentina and worked as a boxing promoter and as a physical trainer for the local Jockey Club and an American firm. In 1959 an article in Ebony magazine reported that he and his interracial family had "completely assimilated with other Argentines" and quoted Repress as saying that in his adopted country, "laws are equal for Black, White, yellow or red races" (The Man Who Discovered Firpo, 1959, p. 76).
Three Journalists Confront the Popular Perception
Of far-reaching experiences that a U.S.-born Black had as a consequence of staying anywhere south of the Equator in the first half of the 20th century, the most significant was the three-month tour of South America by Robert S. Abbott, publisher of the influential newspaper, The Chicago Defender. Abbott, accompanied by his wife, Helen, were toasted by the Black elite of Chicago and New York's Harlem before their departure on January 21, 1923, notwithstanding considerable difficulties in obtaining visas from the Brazilian consul, who did not want Blacks to immigrate there, and steamship companies that refused them first class accommodations because of their race (Hellwig, 1992; Ottley, 1955). Supposedly, Abbott had been enticed to visit Brazil by fellow Black Americans, most notably the former Chicago resident and boxer Calvin Repress whose accounts, among others, of a land relatively free of racial prejudice and brimming with opportunity were printed in the pages of Abbott's newspaper. He was also well aware of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt's comparison of the status of Blacks in Brazil to that of those in the U.S., as published in Outlook magazine and based on his visit in 1913 (Roosevelt, 1914). Abbott had to confirm these reports to his own satisfaction, and he intended to make known his findings to the readers of The Chicago Defender, then the leading Black newspaper in the country.
Before arriving in Brazil, the centerpiece of his itinerary, Abbott stopped briefly in Panama, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. Arriving in Rio de Janeiro on February 15, 1923, he befriended Alfredo Clendenden, a highly respected Black expatriate dentist from New York who introduced him to some of the important people of Brazilian society and in Sao Paulo. With the exception of a couple of clear incidents of racial discrimination at hotels, the dark-skinned Abbott and his fair-skinned wife were well treated and even flattered with dinner parties and speaking engagements, and he was genuinely stunned at discovering persons of African descent able to achieve the kind of prominence about which Blacks equal in ability living in the U.S. could only fantasize. Small wonder that Abbott left Brazil singing its praises, telling his readers back home that: "the Negro's importance in the political and intellectual life of Brazil far transcends that of the Negro in North America. And this is because there have been no obstacles put athwart his path of free development" (Hellwig, 1992, pp. 71-72). A committed integrationist and an outspoken foe of the Black nationalists, Abbott, who returned to Chicago to push even harder for the advancement of Blacks, would henceforth insist with even greater conviction that Blacks need not consider immigration to Africa or colonization in some distant land since, based on what he had witnessed in Brazil, they were in no way inferior to Whites and inherently possessed all that was required to succeed in the U.S. if only they would persist in fighting for what they rightfully deserved as citizens.
By the early 1920s Brazil had edged out Mexico as the favored destination pushed by emigrationist leaders favoring colonization in Latin America, and they promoted the idea in their advertisements and pronouncements that in virtually any country there were decidedly fewer racists than in any place in the U. S. (Gomes, 2006; Hellwig, 1992; Meade & Pirio, 1988; Redkey, 1969; Vincent, 1994). But while the Chicago-based Brazilian American Colonization Syndicate was placing ads in Black magazines and newspapers proclaiming Brazil a racial panacea to attract investors, and the maverick Springfield chapter of Marcus Garvey 's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was hatching a scheme to settle Black families in northern Brazil by way of British Guiana (now Guyana), the Brazilian government, despite its well-publicized solicitations for foreign immigrants, behind the scenes was redoubling its efforts to prevent all persons of African descent from entering the country (Meade & Pirio, 1988). By the end of the decade both the emigrationists and the integrationists learned that they had seriously misread the social dynamics of Latin America, particularly Brazil.
Abbott was completely unaware that the reason he had to appeal to powerful politicians to pressure Brazilian officials to grant him and his wife visas was because that country's political leaders were quietly enforcing a federal decree banning the entry of foreign Blacks, including Black American tourists. Abbott and others were pitifully naive and uninformed of the country's racial psychology that inspired a covert policy of ruthlessly excluding Blacks while welcoming White foreigners. Scholars Teresa Meade and Gregory A. Pirio explained that the idea of "whitening" Brazil's population can be traced to commonly held beliefs among the country's elites who wished to bury its slavery past and embrace the image of a modern democratic society. These elites subscribed to extant racist scientific theories that associated progress, intelligence, and morality with Whiteness (Caucasians), the opposite of Blackness (Negroes); and they believed that several generations of White immigration would whiten the population to a desired level (Meade & Pirio, 1988). They further asserted that the elites dreaded the possibility that Black immigrants would bring with them notions of race consciousness that in turn would prompt organized agitation for social, political, and economic reform (Meade & Pirio, 1988).
The arrest of Marcus Garvey in 1925; the crushing disappointments of Liberia, Mexico, and Brazil as emigrant destinations; and the worldwide catastrophe of the Great Depression lasting through the 1930s effectively ended organized efforts to find safe havens abroad for groups of disgruntled Black African Americans. Though individuals seeking knowledge, adventure, and fortune continued traveling through Central and South America into the 1940s, for Blacks in the U.S., these regions soon evolved from popular distraction to more a matter of academic curiosity. Journalists, tourists, and educators still found reasons to visit, but the simplistic characterizations of racial Utopias south of the border were corrected with more sober evaluations. In 1937, after two colleagues at Atlanta University were humiliated by Mexican officials, W. E. B. Du Bois was on the verge of formulating a concerted effort to attack that government's policy of discouraging Black visitors, a matter reported on in the Black press since the early 1920s (Vinson, 2004). In the summer of 1940 Baltimore AfroAmerican correspondent Ollie Stewart made numerous folksy observations in his dispatches to the newspaper that were incongruent with previous glowing testimonies about Brazil, starting with the fact that no fewer than eleven hotels refused him a room the first day of his 20-day stay in Rio de Janeiro, forcing him to stay in "a dump" (Hellwig, 1992, p. 93). He offered this sad conclusion:
I was anxious to visit Brazil because of a report that Brazil had no color line or color prejudice. But I have made my last search for the fountain of youth. I traded the U.S. jim crow [sic] for the Brazilian run around-and I shall be satisfied henceforth to do my bit toward getting my native house in order. The American Colored man can't solve this problem by running off to Cuba, Santo Domingo, or Brazil. The White man in faraway places gives him the same going-over he took in New York, Maryland, or Alabama (Hellwig, p. 95).
Stewart returned convinced that the Black man in the United States should be committed to fighting the good fight for equality at home, where his family was much better off economically, where his children stood a better chance of reaching college, and where his women were not "dying to marry a White man or have a child by him" (Hellwig, p. 108). In 1948 George S. Schulyer, a novelist and columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, left for a sixweek tour of ten Latin American countries. Upon his return he wrote of his impressions in his newspaper, in the magazine Negro Digest, and in a 27-page chapter in his autobiography, Black and Conservative (Schuyler, 1966). Similar to fellow Blackjournalist Ollie Stewart, Schuyler could not resist making comparisons of Blacks in the United States with those he observed abroad, and also similar to Stewart he was simultaneously elated and dismayed with what he found.
On the one hand, Schuyler was glad to report on the successes of a number of "Colored people" who had risen to the top of their profession or who were celebrated national heroes, and others who enjoyed the absence of laws denying them political participation, social mobility, and use of public accommodations. As did Stewart, boxer Joe Louis, anthropologist Ellen Irene Diggs, opera soprano Dorothy Maynor and others, Schuyler had the same unpleasant experience of being denied a hotel room because of race. Schuyler was taken aback by antiBlack immigration policies throughout Latin America, which accounted for his short stay in several countries, and the grinding poverty, lack of business ownership, and high illiteracy among Afro-Latinos. He remarked on the seeming acceptance by Afro-Latinos of a social hierarchy based on skin color gradation and class which stymied group solidarity, was rooted in race consciousness, and precluded the formation of effective organizations to better their lot (Schuyler, 1949). In sum, he was pessimistic about their future because, "Negroes are in the lower class, and what with color bias, nepotism, ignorance, malnutrition and disease, the cards are definitely stacked against them" (Schuyler, 1949, p. 55). Schuyler ended one of his travel reports saying that for anyone wanting a respite from Jim Crow and considering a trip to investigate the situation in Latin America, a better choice might be elsewhere since, "for making a living and enjoying the good things that modern civilization affords, the Negro is better off in the U.S.A" (Schuyler, 1949, p. 55). The respected and widely read opinions of Stewart and Schuyler, two of this country's foremost Black journalists of the 1940s, represented a sea of change in the way Black North Americans viewed the racial situation below the Tropic of Cancer. The naive, misleading propaganda of the emigrationists was discredited and a more critical evaluation had begun. And while visiting Black journalists were debunking widespread myths of "the good life" to be had in Latin America, the pace of Black American artistic experiences there increased and their scholarly researches intensified.
1936-1949: Artists and Scholars Explore, Shape Perceptions
The most notable aspect of Blacks' experiences in Latin America starting in the mid-1930s and continuing through the 1940s is the migration of Black artists to Mexico, due largely to the influence of radical muralist Diego Rivera and a resurgent interest in pre-Colombian artifacts and Mexican folk art (LeFalle-Collins & Goldman, 1996). Among those drawn to that country were muralist Hale Woodruff who apprenticed under Rivera in the summer of 1936; paintersculptor Sargent C. Johnson whose many trips to Mexico commencing in 1944 to study archeological sites and the pottery of the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca were financed by two Abraham Rosenberg Scholarships (Leninger-Miller, 1999); Eldzier Cortor, a product of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), who went to Mexico to fine-tune his lithography skills; printmaker Charles White who studied at the internationally renowned print shop Taller de Gràfica Popular in Mexico City; and sculptor-graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White's first wife, who became the best known of the Black expatriates in Latin America. Catlett initially went to Mexico City to study public art on a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1946. She was a political activist who strongly identified with Mexican women and the poor and the working class. She became a Mexican citizen, married artist Francisco Mora, and from 1958 to 1976 taught at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Herzog, 2000).
Also drawn to Mexico in this period was Carl A. Hansberry, an outstanding Chicago attorney who in a final desperate act to escape racial oppression in the U.S. moved to a suburb of Mexico City in 1945; he died the following year in his home. His daughter, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, spent part of the summer of 1949 at the University of Guadalajara at an art workshop in Ajijic, Mexico (Cheney, 1984). Former Tuskegee Airman Virgil J. Richardson, co-founder of the American Negro Theatre in New York City, settled permanently in Mexico and worked as an actor and English teacher (Vinson, 2004). Further south, in 1937 and 1938, mezzo?soprano Marian Anderson toured South America. The flamboyant singer and dancer Josephine Baker shocked audiences in 1947 on her South American tour. That same year dancer/ choreographer Katherine Dunham and her troupe were received as royalty in Mexico City during a four-week engagement at the Teatro Esperanza Iris (Haskins, 1982). In 1949, novelist Richard Wright, on his way to Argentina to star in a film, stopped in Montevideo, Uruguay and voiced his opinion on the race problem in the U.S. to the local press. He wrote nearly nothing about his ten-month stay in Buenos Aires but once recalled the "decadent nobility who sat huddled and afraid in their huge houses, cursing, swearing that peons could not operate telephones, [and] could not run railroads" (Rowley, 2001, p. 384). And, in 1949 NAACP president Walter White and his wife, Leah, obtained a Mexican divorce.
Another distinguishing feature of the 1930s and 1940s was the dramatic increase of scholarly research by Black professors addressing the histories and cultures of Latin America. Most of these investigations were related to African retentions and people of African descent in the New World. In its first 25 years (1916-1939), the Journal of Negro History published ten articles and nine book reviews pertaining to Central and South America, but in a much shorter time span (1940-1949) it published eleven articles and ten book reviews. Add to this, eight articles and three book reviews published in the 1940s in Phylon (ajournai founded in 1940), and one begins to appreciate the heightened awareness and interest in Latin America, where the evidence of the African diaspora was manifest but so often disregarded.
Scholarly research authored by Blacks in this period began with Laurence Foster (1931), the first Black to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology. Part of the field work for his dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania was conducted in Naciamento, Mexico, where he documented the history and present condition of the descendants of roughly 300 Black and Indian Seminoles who immigrated there in 1849. An early researcher on the literature of Latin America was Valaurez B. Spratlin, a professor at Howard University, whose article "The Negro in Spanish Literature" in the Journal of Negro History (Spratlin, 1934) mentioned some cultural heroes in Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. Another Romance languages and literature scholar, Sarah M. Eason, an instructor at Shaw University, wrote her Ph.D. thesis at Ohio State University (Eason, 1943) on the ideology and style of Jose Ruben Romero, the somewhat cynical Mexican novelist of the post-Revolution. Howard University English professor Lorenzo D. Turner, on returning to the U.S. from a stint in Brazil as a Rosenwald Fellow, published "Some Contacts of Brazilian Ex-Slaves with Nigeria, West Africa" in the Journal of Negro History (Turner, 1942). On a subsequent trip to Northeast Brazil he made hundreds of recordings in which at least five African languages could be discerned and claimed that "several thousand African words have become a permanent part of the vocabulary of Brazilian Portuguese" (Hellwig, 1992, p. 162).
Lay historians in this period were glad to discover and publicize heretofore unrecognized Black heroes in the tropics. Richard Robert Wright, a banker and founder of Savannah State College, had a piece originally carried in American Anthropology reprinted in Phylon titled "Negro Companions of the Spanish Explorers" (Wright, 1902; 1941), which, among other things, did much to rehabilitate the reputation of Estevanico. And newspaper columnist and historian-without-portfolio Joel A. Rogers, the indefatigable chronicler of the achievements of African people worldwide, past and present, in the second volume of Sex and Race (Rogers, 1942) devoted the first 150 pages to the Black presence in Latin America.
The first of the rigorously trained Black linguistic anthropologists to do field research in Central America was Mark Hanna Watkins. Watkins obtained his doctorate at the University of Chicago, where he also wrote his masters thesis on "Terms of Relationship in Aboriginal Mexico" (Watkins, 1930). Watkins was an expert in the Indian languages of Guatemala and Costa Rica, though he was better known for his work in South African (Bantu) and Haitian linguistics. He edited Materials on the Mam, Jacaltec, Aguacatec, Chuj, Bachahoa, Palencano, andLacandon Languages in the University of Chicago's Middle America Cultural Anthropology series (Watkins, 1946). In his essay in Phylon titled "Some Aspects of Race Relations in Brazil," sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (1942), who spent a year in the country on a Guggenheim Fellowship, surmised that the disintegration of White "rural patriarchal organization" lead to the acceptance of "mixed-bloods" and predicted that the immigration of Italians and Germans and the influence of White British and American tourists and businessmen would over time "accentuate discrimination based on color" (Frazier, 1942, p. 295).
The 1950s: Exploiting Opportunities and Understanding Realities at Mid-Century
The opening of the decade of the 1950s found painter William Byers in the mountainous state of Guanajuato, Mexico at the Escuela de Bellas Artes. A native of Washington, D.C., Byers, an ex-Navy pharmacist, would later study at the Universare de Mexico in Mexico City under the tutelage of David Siquieros before returning to a career of teaching and painting in the U.S. His peaceful life in the historic city of San Miguel de Allende, where there was "not the hint of discrimination anywhere," was profiled by a fellow student in The Crisis (Neal, 1950). Printmaker Walter Williams, a promising artist from New York, traveled and worked in Mexico in 1955 on a Whitney Fellowship. Painter-collageist Sam Middleton studied at the Instituto Allende in 1956 and had a major exhibition in Mexico City a year later. Yet another artist, sculptor and professor, John Wilson of Boston University, was lured to Mexico City, where he remained from 1952 to 1955 studying fresco painting in the style of Jose Clémente Orozco. The influence of Orozco continued to be acknowledged by Black artists, including John Biggers, Charles Alston, and Jacob Lawrence.
Concert pianist Philippa D. Schuyler, daughter of the aforementioned journalist George S. Schuyler, made her triumphant tour of Latin America in 1954. She played to applause in Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and (most importantly) Argentina, where her performance of George Gershwin's Concerto in F with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic Symphonic Orchestra was broadcast across the entire continent via radio El Mundo (Philippa Schuyler..., 1954; Talalay, 1995). At a party in Santiago, Chile, Philippa met a fellow Black American, the artist Elton Fax, and found that their activities in the country were sponsored by the U.S. State Department. In 1950 Katherine Dunham toured South America again and spent six months in Argentina; there she was escorted around town by Eva Peron. In Santiago her troupe premiered "Southland," an interpretive hour-long ballet concerning lynching, exposing an aspect of her country's brutal racial history to people abroad. However, her visit to Sao Paulo, Brazil was marred when the luxury hotel Esplanada denied her a room on account of her race. This event spurred the country's embarrassed government to adopt a new law banning such discrimination (Aschenbrenner, 2000; Fernandes, 1969; Nash, 1951). The incident was reported extensively in the Black press. Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, fresh out of the Air Force and struggling to launch his career, settled briefly in Mexico City with his German wife and tried to make a living painting portraits. His son, actor Mario Van Peebles, was born there in 1957. In 1959 pioneering dentist Earl W. Renfroe took a break from his position at the University of Illinois at Chicago to lecture in the Caribbean and South America. He traveled to Brazil on six occasions and is considered the "father of orthodontics" in that country (Bike, 2000).
Thanks to infrastructure improvements conducive to tourism in Mexico and rising incomes of Black Americans in the post-war era, by the end of the decade Morris Williams and Leroy Martin launched their enterprise Williams & Martin Tours; it was based in Mexico City and catered to an upper-class Black clientele (Vinson, 2004). The agency thrived as Black sports stars, entertainers, and other highly publicized figures traveled to Mexico for fun and relaxation, mirroring the habits of their White counterparts.
Academically speaking, the treatise of the decade was researched by Charles W. Simmon, a former sergeant major in the Marine, who taught at several Black colleges in the South. His dissertation on Latin American history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1950 was eventually revised and published with the same title: Marshal Deodoro and the Fall of Dom Predro II (Simmon, 1966) by Duke University Press. The reviewer for the American Historical Review wrote: "It is strange that nearly eighty years passed after the overthrow of the Western Hemisphere's only successful monarchy before a biography of Deodoro da Fonseca appeared in English...The present book is an example of the new trend toward competent scholarship on Brazil" (Worcester, 1967. p. 265). Simmons published articles in the Hispanic American Review, the Journal of Inter-American Studies, and Mid-America. Perhaps his best remembered piece is "Racist Americans in a Multi-Racial Society: Confederate Exiles in Brazil," in the Journal of Negro History (Simmon, 1982).
The field work of anthropologist Ellen Irene Diggs, conducted in Uruguay and Argentina in the mid 1940s, resulted in journal articles years later dealing with race in South America, including "O Aleijadinho" (about the Afro-Brazilian sculptor Antonio Francisco Lisboa) in Americas (Diggs, 1950); "Argentine Diptych-Meliton and Schimu" in The Crisis (Diggs, 1953); and, in the Journal of Negro History, "The Negro in the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata" (Diggs, 1951), and "Color in Colonial Spanish America" (Diggs, 1953). Howard University librarian Dorothy B. Porter was another Black scholar smitten with a fascination for Brazilian culture and the people of African descent. She wrote "Padre Domingos Caldas Barbosa: Afro-Brazilian Poet" in Phylon (Porter, 1951); "The Negro in the Brazilian Abolition Movement" (Porter, 1952); and "Afro-Braziliana: A Working Bibliography" (Porter, 1978).
In 1951 the former vagabond-turned-novelist Willard Motley, whose Knock on Any Door (Motley, 1947) was made into a motion picture starring Humphrey Bogart, finally got a chance to vacation in Mexico. Seduced by the friendliness and warmth of its people and elated by a newfound sense of acceptance, he quickly decided to return to the U.S. only to expedite business and personal matters. The Chicago native admitted to a reporter, "Maybe subconsciously I like Mexico because there is a feeling of freedom there. I never think of color until someone brings it up" (Fleming, 1978, p. 89). He moved from Cuernavaca into a home near Mexico City, where he stayed until his death in 1965. The following year G. P. Putnam published Motley's Let Noon Be Fair (Motley, 1966), about an idyllic Mexican fishing village that is transformed by vulgar American tourists and other corrupting influences. It was the first novel by a U.S.born Black American set in Central or South America. Satirical novelist Hal Bennett moved to Mexico in the mid-1950s and today resides in San Miguel de Allende. Among his works penned while living in Mexico are The Mexico City Poems and House of Hay (Bennett, 1961) and his most important novel, Lord of Dark Places (Bennett, 1970).
Since the early 1820s Black Americans have in large part viewed Central and South America as destinations where their desire for liberty and racial equality could more easily be attained. The personal successes of a handful of individuals and the promoters of colonization fed their naivete, but as the schemes of the emigrationists folded and reports of racism and Afro-Latino poverty filtered back, and in spite of the growing interest and involvement of Black scholars and celebrities, a more realistic assessment of the social and economic disparities there gradually took root. Moreover, it is asserted here that the groundwork for what has appeared to be an acceleration of both scholarly and popular interest in these regions by Blacks in the United States since the mid-twentieth century can be understood only when the historical evidence is carefully retraced, revealing an interplay of social forces and a sequence of events-all specific to the Black American experience-leading to this cultural quasi-phenomenon.
By the close of the decade of the 1950s, there was still clearly discernable evidence of sustainable popular and scholarly interest among Black Americans in the cultures, peoples (particularly Afro-Latinos) socio-political events, business possibilities, and tourism in Central and South America. Thanks in large part to critical reporting in the Black press, it took a full century to change the stubborn notion of Latin America as an inviting haven where darkerskinned people were hardly disadvantaged or where race was of little importance in daily affairs. But the reality of racial discrimination there did not arrest curiosity in that part of the world where, though not perfect, a less blatant system of racial inequity existed. Though Blacks were forced to reconsider their long-held perceptions, they continued to be lured to the southern regions in increasing numbers, seeking respite from racism at home and a better understanding of the African diaspora in the New World.
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Robert Fikes, Jr.1
San Diego State University
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Publication information: Article title: U.S. Blacks' Perceptions, Experiences, and Scholarship regarding Central and South America - 1822 to 1959. Contributors: Fikes, Robert, Jr. - Author. Journal title: Negro Educational Review. Volume: 57. Issue: 3/4 Publication date: Fall 2006. Page number: 171+. © Negro Educational Review, Inc. Spring 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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