An American Oasis from Racism?
Black Expats in Denmark
|Dr. Ethelene Whitmire has been to Denmark 12 times
since 2010, finishing her first book, studying
the African American presence in Denmark for her
second book and just kicking back to relax.
Whitmire received a grant from the Ford Foundation in 2004 to write a book that would compare the library usage of students of color with
white students. She went to UCLA to do research for her book, but California had just passed anti-Affirmative Action higher education
measures that greatly reduced the number of students of color at UCLA. So Whitmire headed for the community to do her research.
“As I was reading backgrounds about African Americans and libraries, I came across a research article about Black women during the Harlem
Renaissance at the Schaumberg Center, which had been the 135th Street Library,” Whitmire said. “One of the women who were so fascinating
was Regina Andrews. She was a playwright. She travelled around the world. She was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. I decided to write a
book about her. So for my first book, I ended up doing history and learning a lot about Black History that I never learned in undergrad or high
school. Her life spanned the whole 20th century. I went back into her family. In the 1800s, it was very interesting. She left behind 2,000
photographs from the 1800s. Her father was an attorney like the Johnnie Cochran of Chicago back in the early 20th century. Her story was
fascinating and I got into Black History and I started teaching a course in the UW-Madison Afro-American Studies Department because my
interests started to shift.”
While writing her book on Andrews, Whitmire needed a place to finish her book. She enjoyed Danish films and so she decided to move to
Copenhagen, Denmark for two months while she put the finishing touches on her book.
“I didn’t know anyone while I was writing my book,” Whitmire said. “And I just started suddenly seeing the African Americans in Denmark. I
was working on Regina Andrews. I had left all of the data. I was just revising. I was looking at it as a writing retreat for two months. It was just
a place to hang out. I wanted to live abroad more than just a few days or a week or two that most Americans do. I didn’t know anyone. That
was 2010. I loved it so much that I went back in January. In the meantime, I was reading a lot of biographies about Black people. And there
was a Black woman who went to Denmark in the 1930s and it turned out that I was following in her footsteps. She wanted to meet this actor.
She wrote him a letter that I found in the archives. And I had done the same thing in January with my favorite Danish actor.”
Whitmire became so infatuated with Denmark that she has been back 11 times since that initial visit to Denmark, including the last eight
summers. Whitmire thought she was finishing a book. Little did she know that she was starting another.
Whitmire was headed back to her apartment during that first visit to Copenhagen when she almost literally stumbled onto a discovery.
“I was in Assistens Cemetery, which is a huge, huge cemetery,” Whitmire said. “The path to my apartment took me by there. I’m usually not an
observant person. I don’t look at gravestones. But there was something calling to me. And then I saw it. There were Danish names. I didn’t
know who he was, but then something just told me to look him up. And I found out Ben Webster was a major jazz musician. There were two
others buried right behind him. A lot of jazz musicians are buried there. I said, ‘What is this history that I never heard of about Black people in
Denmark?’ I decided to start researching that for my second book. I’ve been working on that for several years. It just intrigued me because I
heard a lot about Paris, France and James Baldwin and all of these other writers. So I decided to research and find out who is there. Even
though I talk about Danish history, it opens up a world of African American history. ”
And it opened up a whole new pathway to Whitmire’s career.
“I’ve gotten some grants and have made many presentations,” Whitmire said. “That’s how I ended up in this new area. And in the fall, after a lot
of paperwork is done, I’ll be half-time in Afro-Am Studies where I’ll have a joint appointment. I’m also in the German, Nordic and Slavic Studies
Department as an affiliate. It’s the former Scandinavian Studies Department. And I’ve gone to several conferences about Scandinavia and of
course, they don’t have much about Black people at all there. It’s a very interesting and intriguing project that I am very passionate about.”
During her travels, Whitmire has met relatives of African Americans who lived in Copenhagen including the widow of the late jazz saxophonist
“I met Maxine Gordon in New York City because I’m from New Jersey,” Whitmire said. “And she has been to Copenhagen twice when I was
there. We hung out there too. She’s an inspiration. I was giving one talk during Jazz Fest and this woman came in for the talk that was coming
after mine. She said, ‘My father-in-law, Sahib Shihab, was one of the musicians.’ I said, ‘Yes, he’s in my study.’ She said, ‘When her first came
there, he was with Quincy Jones touring Europe. He liked Denmark. It seemed really remarkable and liked the space. He came back a second
time to see if he had the same feelings. He lived there for several decades until his death.’”
Whitmire has found that there has been a strong African American presence in Denmark throughout the 20th century. It has ranged from some
just passing through all the way to people establishing permanent residence there. Many figures from African American history have been to
Denmark in some capacity.
“Booker T. Washington is whom I start the book with,” Whitmire said. “I was intrigued that he was there. He loved it. He thought it was the most
perfect country in the world. He was invited to meet with the king and queen of Denmark. Lots of people passed through like Josephine Baker. I
was able to get Danish newspapers to compare how they talk about her versus the Black newspapers who covered her trip to Denmark and
other countries. There were famous people who just stopped by like Adam Clayton Powell was there and he wrote about it in the 1950s giving
a talk about Ralph Bunche when he won the Nobel Prize. He went to Denmark too. Mahalia Jackson performed. The King of Denmark had seen
her perform in Chicago and he said, ‘Come to Denmark. We want to see you perform.’ Curt Flood, the baseball player, is another famous person
who came to Denmark. That was kind of his getaway when he was fighting the battle all the way to the Supreme Court for free agency. He grew
a goatee. They didn’t have baseball as a sport. And so he said, ‘I can be just a regular person.’ He responded to Americans who were trying to
keep up with what was going on in baseball, ‘I don’t care. I don’t want to hear about that.’ He became a painter. But eventually, he felt he was
hiding from his past and that he should go back.”
Next issue: The complexity of Denmark’s Black community
By Jonathan Gramling
Dr. Ethelene Whitmire has been on an academic and personal journey almost her
entire life, one that is always looking to see what is around that next corner, one
that is willing to change directions depending on what she encounters and whom
she meets. And it is this journey that somehow led her to Denmark to study the
Black expat community there.
Whitmire hails from a working-class family from New Jersey. She is a first-
generation college graduate. The family’s newness to higher education led
Whitmire to take it one step at a time.
“I went to the state university of Rutgers for my bachelor’s degree in English and
also my master’s degree in library studies,” Whitmire said. “And I worked for the
university at Rutgers for a while. And I started meeting people with Ph.D.s I didn’t
know anyone with one before and I realized that you don’t have to be that smart to
be one. And so I decided to go to the University of Michigan to get my Ph.D. in
higher education administration. I was interested in students and how they use
libraries for their education in higher education. Specifically, I was looking at
students of color. And then I decided to teach at library schools and I applied for
different positions and I ended up here at UW-Madison in 1999.”