Rev Irene Monroe

Valaida Snow: Black and queer in Nazi Germany?!

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | February 28, 2008 9:35 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Politics
Tags: African-American, Apollo Theater, Black History Month, concentration camps, Germany, Harlem, jazz legends, lesbian, Nazi, queer, Valaida Snow

Missing from the annals of African American history and the history of Nazi Germany are the documented valaida37.jpgstories 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 forgotten every Black History Month in celebrating our heroes and survivors.

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 rigueur 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, German women were nonetheless viewed as 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. In 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 Germans 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 peoples 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. "Racist 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 other just simply mysteriously disappeared.

There was no systematic program for elimination of people of African descent in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 in Nazi Germany because their number were few, but their abuses in German-occupied territories, like the one in which Snow was captured, 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.


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Michael Bedwell | February 28, 2008 3:52 PM

There's an unfortunate growing trend to exaggerate the experiences of lesbians under the Third Reich [which I'm not suggesting you are], but, certainly, there were exceptions and it was no comfort to those that they were brutalized in far smaller numbers than male homosexuals. Still, we trust you meant "branded" as a metaphor for that's the most it was as a matter of policy historically.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of some gays and lesbians, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC does not ignore the treatment of gay men and women as so many historians do. No one visiting DC should leave without touring it. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005478

Thank you for the story of Valaida Snow, another of tragic example of the endless levels of insanity that believing Hitler was the Messiah unleashed.

I added a video of Valaida that I found on YouTube, Rev. Irene. It really helped to put a human face on your story when you could see her too. Thanks for introducing me to someone I'd never heard of.