BlackFacts Details

The African American Experience in Italy, 1852 to 2013

In the following article longtime contributor and San Diego State University Librarian Robert Fikes discusses African Americanemigrants to and visitors in Italy.

Since the 1850s, African Americans have gone to Italy as tourists, students, soldiers, writers, musicians, opera singers, social activists, and actors.  Many, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Edward Brooke, Dean Dixon, Ralph Ellison, William Demby, and Frank Snowden, have offered insightful observations about the nation’s people and attractions based on firsthand experiences.  For most, the stay was of short duration, but a few remained there as permanent residents, relieved of the kind of anti-black racism back home that would have smothered their dreams.  Some attained professional prominence that would otherwise have been denied them.  Italian fascism and colonial adventurism was upsetting but did not significantly change the widely held perception of a friendly nation that presented opportunities for them to flourish. And there remains the little known fact that African American scholars have written impressively about Italian history and culture.

Enjoying hiatus from oppression in his homeland, on a warm spring day in 1852, David F. Dorr, an octoroon slave from Louisiana, stretched out his body on the banks of the Tiber River, resting after having visited the Vatican and witnessed Pope Pius IX in all his jeweled splendor.  Self-confident, literate, and proud of his African heritage, several years later Dorr, now a fugitive ex-slave living in Cleveland, Ohio, reflected on his travels in Europe and the Near East attending his once indulgent master in a memoir, A Colored Man Round the World (1858).  His chapters on Italy, focusing on Rome, Naples, Venice, Verona and Bologna, Florence, and Pisa, included a considerable amount of historical context and personal interactions with inhabitants.

Dorr was not the only person of African descent in the 1800s with more than superficial