Missing from the annals of African American history and the history of Nazi Germany are the documented stories and struggles of African Americans, straight and “queer.” Valaida Snow, captured in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen and interned in a concentration camp for nearly two years, is one such story that is forgotten every Black History Month.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Valaida Snow came from a family of musicians and was famous for playing the trumpet. Named “Little Louis” after Louis Armstrong (who called her the world’s second best jazz trumpet player — besides himself, of course) Snow played concerts throughout the U.S., Europe, and China. On a return trip to Denmark after headlining at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Snow, the conductor of an all-women’s band, was arrested for allegedly possessing drugs and sent to an Axis internment camp for alien nationals in Wester-Faengle.
While in pre-Hitler Germany all-female orchestras were de rigeur in many avant-garde entertainment clubs. These homosocial all-women’s bands created tremendous outrage during Hitler’s regime. Snow was sent to a concentration camp not only because she was black and in the wrong place at the wrong time, but also because of her “friendships” with German women musicians, implying lesbianism.
Although laws against lesbianism had not been codified, and lesbians were not criminalized for their sexual orientations as gay men were, these women were nonetheless viewed as a threat to the Nazi state and were fair game during SS raids on lesbian bars, sentenced by the Gestapo, sent to concentration camps, and branded with a black triangle. As a matter of fact, any German woman, lesbian, prostitute or heterosexual, not upholding her primary gender role — “to be a mother of as many Aryan babies as possible” — was deemed anti-social and hostile to the German state.
Because Nazis could not discern between the sexual affection and social friendship between straight and lesbian women, over time they dismissed lesbianism as a state and social problem, as long as both straight and lesbian women carried out the state’s mandate to procreate.
Nazi Germany’s extermination plan of gay men is a classic example of how politics informed their science. Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code differentiated between the types of persecution non-German gay men received from German gay men because of a quasi-scientific and racist ideology of racial purity. “The polices of persecution carried out toward non-German homosexuals in the occupied territories differed significantly from those directed against German gays,” wrote Richard Plant in The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals. “The Aryan race was to be freed of contagion; the demise of degenerate subjects was to be hastened.”
Hans J. Massaquoi, former Ebony Magazine editor, and the son of an African diplomat and white German mother, in his memoir Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, depicts a life of privilege until his father returned to his native Liberia. Like all non-Aryans, Massaquoi faced constant dehumanization and the threat of death by Gestapo executioners. “Racists in Nazi Germany did their dirty work openly and brazenly with the full protection, cooperation, and encouragement of the government, which had declared the pollution of Aryan blood with ‘inferior’ non-Aryan blood the nation’s cardinal sin,” he wrote. Consequently, the Gestapo rounded up and forcibly sterilized and subjected many non-Aryans to medical experiments, while others just mysteriously disappeared.
There was no systematic program for elimination of people of African descent in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 because their numbers were few, but the abuses they were subjected to in German-occupied territories, like Snow’s, were great and far-reaching.
After 18 months of imprisonment, Snow was one of the more fortunate blacks to make it out of Nazi Germany, released as an exchange prisoner. She was, however, both psychologically and physically scarred from the ordeal and never fully recovered. Snow attempted to return to performing but her spark, tragically, was gone.