A Slave’s Legacy Lives On in World War II

In this excerpt from Freedom Papers, learn about a European woman of color's bravery in the 1940s.

Journalist Fay Jackson (University of Southern California); Freedom Papers (Harvard University Press)

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With this buildup established, Marie-José and André proceeded to the office of the register in Chelsea on April 10. As Fay Jackson recounted the story for the Associated Negro Press, “Marie, a happy girl, awoke in a London hotel in Chelsea … and dressed herself for her wedding … a few hours later she was weeping at the register’s office because her marriage to the man she loved had been banned. Order to stop the wedding had been entered at the court house.” In this account, Marie-José, crying bitterly, proceeded to the register-general to appeal the refusal of a license, and then returned two hours later, “still weeping.” Jackson’s article framed the story in terms her American readers would recognize: “Behind these dramatic circumstances in what might otherwise have been a beautiful romance lies the tragedy of mixed blood and race prejudice.” In the spring following the Ethiopian invasion and of Mussolini’s ban on actors of color on the Italian stage, the marital drama of Marie-José and André evoked an image of American-style racism replicated in Europe.

In the days that followed the tearful scene at the register’s office in Chelsea, the couple gained ground. Although André’s father had apparently obtained assistance from the Belgian consul in entering his caveat at the register-general’s office at Somerset House, the request for a ban on the marriage did not hold up under challenge. The register-general ruled that the couple had complied with the English marriage regulations, and that there was no reason why the marriage should not be performed.

Marie and André rescheduled the wedding, which took place on Tuesday, April 13. Both sets of parents had by then returned to Belgium. Two solicitors were nonetheless present at the ceremony, one representing the bridegroom, and one representing the bridegroom’s father. For all the romantic drama and publicity concerning their struggle, it was not an auspicious way to begin a marriage. André’s father still threatened to take “legal advice in Belgium to get his son’s marriage annulled there,” though nothing much seems to have come of this.

The couple returned to Belgium, where André reported for military service but was quickly discharged. As his parents had presumably feared, he did not finish his legal studies and did not have a job. Marie-José gave birth to a daughter, Liliane, in 1938, and to a son, Michel, in 1939. In May 1939 the young couple moved in with André’s parents in Brussels.

They were living in this perhaps uncomfortable family environment when the war in Europe began. Several Tinchant brothers and cousins joined the Belgian army; Marie-José’s twin brother, José Pierre, was called into active service in August 1939. Marie-José and André’s marriage seems to have run into difficulty by this point, and at the beginning of 1940 she left the home of her in-laws and returned with the children to her parents’ house at 22 rue St. Joseph, in Antwerp.

Marie-José’s father, Pierre Tinchant, had occupied one corner of the Creole niche that his own father, Joseph Tinchant — who did business under the name Don José Tinchant y Gonzales — had established within the world of prosperous francophone families in the city. With the beginning of war, however, Pierre Tinchant and his exuberant brother Vincent now faced the impending collapse of their cigar business. Trade was disrupted, and the company factories fell idle. In April 1940 Marie-José’s father Pierre died, leaving his widow and four children: Marie-José, José Pierre, their sister Liliane, and their younger brother Pedro.

On May 10, 1940, the German invasion of Belgium began. Within eighteen days, the Belgian army had been overrun, and Marie-José’s brother José Pierre Tinchant became a prisoner of war, sent to Stalag XB-Sandbostel, near Bremen, in Germany. Marie-José’s estranged husband André apparently fled to France. France, however, offered no secure refuge, and also crumbled under the German assault. André returned to Belgium.

The country now came under German occupation, bringing a long period of fear, division, and penury. The Tinchant household at 22 rue St. Joseph, in which Marie-José lived, became something of a hotbed of patriotic sentiments: her younger brother Pedro Tinchant would eventually join the armed Resistance, as did her sister Liliane’s husband, Jean Rul. In January 1941, however, Marie-José left this house in Antwerp and moved with her two children into an apartment in Brussels at 29 rue du Damier. According to her brother José Pierre, at this point she was beginning to work with the Resistance.

Marie-José was a young, educated member of a bourgeois francophone family whose kin had served in the Belgian army in the Great War and in 1939. Both her own and her parents’ weddings had taken place in London, and she had long-standing ties to and family in Britain. Her profile fits well with that of other Belgian recruits to the intelligence networks of the Resistance, and it seems likely that intelligence was indeed the sector of the movement in which she worked. At some point she adopted the nom de guerre of Anita.