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Trip of a lifetime: 4 black women in Europe in 1938

By Steven Rosen, Cincinnati Enquirer contributor,

March 25, 2016 

In the summer of 1938, four African-American women from Cincinnati decided to tour Europe. It wasn’t just a pleasure trip.

How could it be? Germany was already under the murderously fascist and anti-Semitic leadership of Adolph Hitler. Italy was ruled by Benito Mussolini. And by the time the four Cincinnati women decided to go, Germany had already invaded and annexed Austria and was threatening other countries, especially Czechoslovakia which would be occupied the next year.

But the four had a sense of mission. Althea Hurst and Margaret Duncan were teachers at Jackson School, Laura Knight was their assistant principal, and Martha Bush taught at Sherman School.

Those two West End schools were for black children and allowed black educators to teach, which they couldn’t do at Cincinnati’s white public schools. The women took their duties very seriously.

“They wanted to see Europe first-hand and compare it to what their textbooks were saying, and then bring their findings back to their students to serve as inspiration for learning,” said Patricia Van Skaik, manager of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s Genealogy & Local History Collection.

They achieved more than that.

Back home in Avondale, Hurst created something lasting, a scrapbook from the photographs she took and from the many postcards, tourist brochures, correspondence, guidebooks, menus, even a racetrack ticket she had gathered. The scrapbook has recently become part of the library’s collection.

Dr. Houston Brummit, who had seen the scrapbook as a teenager, remembered it so vividly that he saved it when Hurst and her husband Joseph both died in 1988. (They had no children.)

Now 88 and retired as a psychiatrist in New York City, Brummit recently donated the scrapbook to the library. “I’m a Cincinnatian and went to Walnut Hills and the original Douglass School,” he said. “I wanted to preserve the manuscript. I think it’s marvelous the offer (the library) made.” (Douglass Elementary was similar to Jackson and Sherman, but located in Walnut Hills.)

“As I grew older, I became aware that this was something unusual and monumental,” said Brummit, whose own father died in 1930 and came to call the Hursts, who were family friends, “Aunt” and “Uncle.”

Brummit’s mother was a teacher. He skipped 12th grade at the integrated Walnut Hills High School and entered the University of Cincinnati at age 16. He went on to Wilberforce University and then Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

Late last year, the library digitized the scrapbook and put the contents on its website. The actual pages are undergoing conservation, but a selection of “surrogates” – high-quality replicas – is on display at the Walnut Hills branch through this month.

“I was amazed when I saw what a treasure it was,” Van Skaik said. “In that time period, Jim Crow was alive and well in the U.S. and even Cincinnati. Here are pictures of them on luxury liners, on the sea, staying in nice hotels, fine dining places.

“It was sort of comparable to the experience African-American GIs had when they went to France and discovered far more rights than they had in U.S.,” she said.

The travel route for the women took them first to Canada, then aboard a trans-Atlantic ship to northern Europe, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France. Bush stayed in France longer than the others to visit a cousin, the famed Kentucky-born jockey Jimmy Winkfield, who had left the U.S. for Russia and then France.

The scrapbook’s pages are filled with mementos of the trip – including the itinerary and correspondence with Provident Travel Service, which booked it. There are snapshots of the women aboard the Empress of Britain ocean liner, of a windmill in Holland, gondolas from Venice, the Chain Bridge in Nuremberg and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

But there’s a sense of unresolved mystery about the scrapbook. What was Hurst thinking when they toured Germany and Austria, as well as Mussolini’s Fascist Italy?

That’s not specifically addressed or discussed. But there is evidence Hurst and her friends knew what was at risk. In Germany, the women took photos of their Jewish tour guide. In Austria, under a scrapbook photo of them posing in front of a statue in a park, Hurst has written “Signs ’Jude verboten’ (Jews forbidden) on all benches and on the entrance.” In Prague, she took photographs of a landmark Jewish synagogue.

Hurst certainly was aware of Europe’s precarious state by 1939. That’s when a woman named Mizzi Klamer sent her a letter from Budapest recalling the 1938 trip. In it, Klamer – whose first language appears to be German and who has friends in Vienna – worries about the threat of war and tells of her opposition to it, while also expressing relief that Hungary was neutral.

She adds that her daughter is taking Hebrew lessons. (Hungary joined the Axis in 1941 and was occupied by Germans in 1944. Ultimately, 300,000 Hungarian soldiers and 600,000 civilians died, among them 450,000 Jews and 28,000 Roma.)

And in another letter from 1947, not long after war’s end, Klamer tells the American teacher of the hell she went through while reassuring her friend that her family has survived.

“…When we remember what we survived here, we ask ourselves terrified if it was true that we could endure all this?”


(To see a digitized version of the scrapbook, visit

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