Who was the first black scientist

African diaspora in Germany

Catherine Oguntoye

To person

Katharina Oguntoye, born in 1959, historian, has been involved in the Black German community for more than ten years. Since 1996 she has been working as a project manager in the association "Joliba - Interkulturell Leben und Arbeit e.V.". Its latest project "Fairway" is aimed at young people who want to take action against intolerance and xenophobia.

How did people of African origin live in Germany until 1945? Who were they and under what conditions did they cope with life in a society that they regarded as 'the foreign'? An analysis of original documents and photographs.


How did people of African origin live in Germany? Who were they and under what conditions did they cope with life in a society that they regarded as 'the foreign'?

I knew from my own life as an Afro-German, born in 1959, how it felt to grow up as a black German in Germany, to feel like a native and yet to be perceived again and again as the symbol of the other. I wondered what the situation might have been like for Africans and Afro-Germans 100 or 50 years before I was born.

Martin Dibobe as a train driver at the Schlesisches Tor underground station, approx. 1908. (& copy archive of BVG Berlin)
There was no literature or documents that could answer these questions for me. The Africans who stayed in the metropolis had never been the subject of historical research until then. The question of their presence in Germany and their contribution to society did not arise for my fellow historians. The reason for this was a series of unsubstantiated assumptions that subsequently turned out to be essentially incorrect and limited:

The Africans living in Germany are a very small minority and therefore their presence was without influence and relevance for the local society.
German society as a whole was so xenophobic that a normal life for Africans would not have been possible here.
Black people were only limited to their role as exotic objects.

In 1987, as part of my thesis at the university, I went in search of evidence of the life of black people in Germany. I managed to sketch out the African immigration and the living conditions of Africans and Afro-Germans in Germany over three historical periods between the establishment of German colonies in 1884 and the end of the Second World War. After a start had been made and some possible sources had been identified, it became clear that research on the presence of black people in Germany represented an extremely diverse and multi-faceted area.

The scientists from the most varied of disciplines who are now turning to this topic and working on a wide variety of aspects experience that their sources even explode in their abundance. I appreciate the variety of research and every new release that helps complete the puzzle. Many questions have now been answered, but many new ones have arisen and so this research area continues to be very exciting and offers the possibility of new discoveries. Above all, the traces left by Africans in German history are so small that there are not enough original sources that can be scientifically evaluated.

Imperial times and colonial rule

The epoch of German colonialism fell in the time of the German Empire. With the unification of the German nation, the fragmentation of the small states was overcome and it seemed only logical that Germany made its claim to be one of the major European powers, now also with the acquisition of its own colonial territories. At the Berlin Congo Conference convened by Otto von Bismarck in 1884, in which all the nations that were important at the time took part, Africa was divided, so to speak, at the green table among the European powers. With this security in the background, the German government - at the insistence of interested colonial and business circles in Germany - took over the protectorate in various areas of Africa.

German colonial postage stamp. (& copy Public Domain, Deutsche Reichspost)
The establishment of the German colonies was the prerequisite for the large numbers of Africans entering Germany for the first time. German merchants, missionaries and travelers were already present before Germany's state involvement in Africa. There was a lot of travel and trade between Africa and Germany. The shipping connections became more regular and the famous 'Woermann Line' drove at a higher frequency to Duala (Cameroon), Lome (Togo), to Walvis Bay (German South West Africa) or to Dar es Salaam (German East Africa).

The expansion of the German colonies went hand in hand with an increasing need for local skilled workers for colonial administration and economy. Many young Africans came to Germany for the purpose of training. Some of them received higher education at German schools and universities. The majority of the newcomers, however, were trained at mission and colonial schools as craftsmen, local mission teachers, craftsmen or skilled workers for work in the colonies. Still others traveled to Germany on ships of the German Africa lines as cooks, stewards or stokers. The Africans were often used as language assistants for African languages ​​with the German Africa researchers or they came to Germany as former members of the German protection forces, the Askari. There was also the large group of those mostly young Africans who were brought back to Germany by German merchants or travelers from their trips to Africa, be it as help for household and business or as sentimental 'souvenirs'.

Many of these Africans who came to Germany as young men or adolescents stayed in Germany for the rest of their lives, started families and worked here. Some of them also got involved in German society on a political level.