The following is an excerpt from Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation, a book about an 18th-century slave, Rosalie, and her amazing descendants.
The coronation of George VI as king of England provided the ostensible motive for the Associated Negro Press to send the journalist Fay M. Jackson from Los Angeles to London in January 1937. Reports of the upcoming ceremony in Westminster Abbey might be expected to find eager readers among the papers that subscribed to the wire service, including the New York Amsterdam News and the Atlanta Daily World. An outspoken reporter with years of experience in California, Fay Jackson was also an activist and a woman of color, known for her earlier lobbying in favor of federal legislation against lynching. Her mandate in London included the reporting of “material of particular interest to American Negro readers.” Indeed, the coronation itself could be said to have such a dimension, for George VI would govern an empire whose subjects included what Jackson characterized as 400 million “black people — essentially of the same race as the Republican-governed American Negro.”
On the music scene in London, swing and jazz were much appreciated, and Jackson’s familiarity with American actors and musicians seems to have provided her with an entrée, beginning with the tenor Ivan Harold Browning, formerly of the Harmony Kings. Jackson reported back that “American Negro newspapers” were much sought after by London-based activists and entertainers: “Weekly sessions are held in the home of [the] Harold Brownings where the American and British race folk gather to ‘run’ the Defender or the Courier or one of the many papers that popular couple receive.”
London in the spring of 1937 was a center of political debate and discussion among men and women of color from Britain, its colonies, and the United States. In the weeks prior to the coronation Jackson filed stories on a mass meeting of the League of Colored Peoples to protest Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, alongside reports on Paul Robeson’s filming of King Solomon’s Mines in London and Africa. She also paid close attention to the issue of the “color bar,” reporting that there would be no racial discrimination in the hiring of waiters in London restaurants during the coronation, but that only two “chieftains” of color would be invited to the ceremony itself.
On April 9, 1937, the question of color momentarily attracted the attention of a mass-circulation London newspaper as well. Under the headline “Fled to Wed Secretly in England,” the Daily Mail reported an interview with the twenty-one-year-old “tiny, cultured daughter of a prosperous cigar merchant of Antwerp.” Mademoiselle Marie-José Tinchant explained the situation: “I am of honorable family, but I am not a white girl, so his parents are trying to stop our marriage.” She went on: “My mother is white, my grandmother is white, but I have colour, and Andre’s parents will not hear of our match.” Her own family, she reported, had consented to the marriage: “I am a woman of honour, and I am proud of my father and my family.”
Events had unfolded with all the drama of a Hollywood movie — one that would be of particular interest to Jackson’s readers. The parents of Marie-José’s fiancé André V. had apparently taken steps to block the marriage in Belgium, so the couple made plans to marry secretly in London, where Marie-José had an aunt, an uncle, and some cousins. To establish residency, André traveled to London in late March and lodged at the Chelsea Royal Hospital, where Marie-José’s uncle was a physician. Marie-José followed in early April, taking a room at the Premier Hotel in Russell Square. When the couple went to the register’s office to obtain a marriage license, however, they were told that André’s father’s solicitor had been making inquiries with an eye to stopping the marriage. Suspense was thus established: Would or would not André and Marie-José be permitted to wed on Saturday, April 10?
That Marie-José Tinchant would give an interview to the Daily Mail on the day before her scheduled “secret” marriage suggests considerable public-relations savvy. She was able to frame the initial discussion of her prospective father-in-law’s opposition, and to guarantee that his legal maneuver — the filing of a “caveat” at the registrar’s office to impede the ceremony — would be made embarrassingly public. By insisting that André’s parents’ opposition to the wedding was based on racial prejudice, and by appealing to English public sentiment in terms of the freedom to marry, Marie-José might make it more difficult for the caveat to be sustained.
Another newspaper, the Daily Express, further set the stage with an article that appeared on the morning of April 10: “Wedding-Day Bid to Stop a Marriage.” Alongside a full-length portrait of the handsome couple, a story breathlessly told the paper’s readers that “a few minutes before a wedding is due to take place at Chelsea Register Office this morning an attempt will be made to stop the ceremony by the bridegroom’s father.” The article suggested the reasons that André’s father would proffer for objecting to the wedding: “M. André [V.] is due to do military service. He has not yet completed his law studies.”
André himself also provided an interview, and gave the story a different twist, attributing his parents’ objection to religious differences. Marie-José’s father, Pierre Tinchant, seemed to prefer that interpretation as well. On the matter of Marie-José’s family background, the report quoted Pierre as saying, “I am Mexican. My wife is American.” (Pierre was a naturalized Belgian citizen, born in Mexico; his wife was a Belgian from Liège. Presumably “American” actually referred not to Pierre’s wife but to his mother, Stéphanie Gonzales, born in New Orleans.) Marie-José’s father insisted that André’s parents “object to the marriage because we are all Roman Catholics, but the wedding will take place.”