Rosa, Finland’s first black citizen
By Miia Jonkka
In June 1888 the Turku-based newspaper Åbo Underrättelser contained an interesting item of news: Finnish missionary Karl Weikkolin had come back from Amboland in Southwest Africa, bringing with him “a mulatto girl born in Africa and baptised there”.
The girl was 13-year-old Rosa Emilia Clay, who is believed to have been the first African to be granted Finnish citizenship.
Rosa first saw her new homeland on June 2nd 1888 from the deck of a ship which had sailed from London. She described her first impressions according to a biography written by Arvo Lindewall in 1942:
“Immediately when the Turku archipelago came into sight, I started to like the environment for some unknown reason, and when the mainland came into view, I immediately fell in love with this new home country of mine in the far north, although I knew that being an African, I might suffer from much derision and scorn.”
Black-and-white studio photographs taken over 100 years ago show a young Rosa with sensitive features.
The first of the pictures showed a childlike roundness in her face. Her gaze is serious. However, her contemporaries did not see the girl as an individual, but rather as a representative of her race.
Rosa certainly got her share of the scorn that she predicted, and perhaps more than she might have expected.
The story of the first Finnish black person reveals how intense the curiosity was toward people with dark skin already then, and on the other hand, of how Finns had also taken on the European attitude of superiority toward Africans, even though Finland had no colonies of its own.
Although no fewer than two biographies have been written about Rosa, her story is not familiar to the Finnish people.
The story of Africans in Finland goes back to the 19th century, when the country was a remote Grand Duchy under Russia.
At that time, dark-skinned people might be seen in circuses, or in cabaret performances in restaurants of large cities. Information of the black continent under colonial rule filtered in mainly through stories told by seamen and from newspaper articles.
The first Finnish missionaries went to Amboland, currently North Namibia, in 1868, and the press wrote eagerly about their lives among the “savage natives”.
One missionary brought a local girl, Eva Maria Nangurashi, to Finland already in 1875. However, she did not adapt and she returned home.
The foster parents of Rosa Emilia Clay took advantage of her exotic appearance.
The girl was made to perform at religious events. In them she had to sing a familiar Christmas hymn in the Hottentot language, even though it was not her mother tongue, and to accompany herself on an organ, which she had never played before.
Rosa describes the situations herself: “Everywhere there were curious audiences. After all, everyone wanted to see the only Negro in Finland. Everyone wanted to hear that Negro pray and sing in those strange African tongues. In every event the collection brought in much money, magnificent amounts in fact. But never did I get as much as five pennies for sweets.”
“Many a time during the first weeks I spent in Finland I would sob and wish that I were still in Ovamboland with my own tribe.”
Rosa had grown up at the Weikkolins’ mission school in Amboland.
According to the book by Lindewall, her father was an English “baron”, who served as “deputy governor” of Capetown, which was then administered by the British.
Rosa’s mother, according to Lindewall, was a young woman, half Ambo, half Arab, whom the baron could not take as his wife, owing to his position.
From the age of two months Rosa had been brought up in an English family living in Amboland, and later was given into the care of the Weikkolins. She did not have warm memories of her childhood in the Finnish-run mission school, where Mrs. Weikkolin would raise her “Negro kids” without sparing the rod.
The Weikkolins put Rosa to school. However, in the summer they continued to have her perform in different parts of Finland.
The Jyväskylä Song Festival left an impression on the girl: “So that I might draw more attention and sympathy among people (so that they might contribute more to our collection) I was forced, in the summer heat of July, to wear an old, greatly oversized winter coat with some fur on the edges. On my black, curly-haired head I had a small white straw hat fastened with a rubber band going around my chin, and on my feet I had misshapen shoes. Dressed like that, I had to walk amongst the people selling postcard pictures taken of myself.”
At the age of 19, Rosa was admitted to the Sortavala Seminar to study to become a teacher.
She did well in the arts. She led the choir of the institution, and was often allowed to sing solos in concerts, thanks to her beautiful voice.
The concert trip of the best singers to Joensuu at Whitsun in 1897 was a success - not least thanks to the lead singer with her exotic beauty.
The next morning a group of students gathered under Rosa’s window, waking her up with their “mischievous songs and shouts of praise”.
Rosa graduated in the summer of 1898 and was granted Finnish citizenship the following year. Her first job was at a school in Mustinlahti in the Kuopio area.
Her life in the little village proved to be bleak: when Rosa arrived by steamer to the small community, a farmer who had come to see the new teacher spat at her and said: “Did they send this kind of black Negro hag to us as a teacher? Even the kids would be afraid of a devil like that.”
Throughout the time that she spent in Mustinlahti, Rosa avoided leaving the school grounds.
When she had to go to the village for business, people would peek out of the windows, and run to their fence or onto the road so as to better see “the Negro”.
The experience made Rosa wonder if she could ever function as a teacher in Finland. She considered returning to Africa to teach at a mission school.
At the turn of the century, Rosa nevertheless moved to Tampere where she taught for three years. Her pupils liked Rosa, and life in the city was in many ways easier than in Mustinlahti.
In Tampere Rosa - who had always had admirers - met a wealthy Russian-born doctor, with whom she became engaged.
However, her fiancé did like many doctors would do at the time, and tested medicines that he was developing on himself. While under the influence of one new preparation, he apparently inadvertently killed himself.
It was then that Rosa decided to leave Finland.
She chose the United States, a country where there were people of different races.
Rosa arrived in New York in the summer of 1904. Not speaking any English, she sought the company of Finns living there.
The local Finnish community had misgivings about her until they noticed that she spoke perfect Finnish.
Rosa joined the Finnish socialists, and she became a well-liked member of the Finnish-American community. She directed a choir, directed plays, sang, and performed at Finnish community halls.
Rosa married a Finnish-American socialist Lauri Lemberg and took on the name Rosa Lemberg.
They soon divorced, however, and Rosa raised the two children Irja and Orvo on her own.
Materially her life was lean, but artistically it was rich. Rosa worked as a director, an actress, and a teacher of the Finnish language in different parts of the United States until she settled in Chicago.
A book on the history of Finnish community halls written by Reino Hannula mentions Rosa Lemberg from 1915, “who can be credited with the tremendous influence that the little theatre [of the Finnish socialist club of Astoria] had on the West Coast Finns”.
Lemberg saw to it that the repertoire of the theatre included Finnish plays, as well as plays by Ibsen and Moliére. “Socialist propaganda was rarely seen”, the book reports.
From her meagre income, Rosa financed her children’s education, and their music and dance lessons. Both Irja and Orvo performed at Chicago’s Imperial Hall on many occasions.
Rosa Lemberg died in 1959 in a Finnish home for the elderly in the small town of Covington.
Rosa’s descendants in the USA were found only after a long search.
It appears that life was not easy for the children, either.
Rosa’s daughter Irja had been bullied as a child because of her dark skin, and consequently kept her mother’s African roots a secret through to the end of her life.
When Irja had her first child in 1928, she was so shocked by her daughter’s dark complexion that she had tried to kill both herself and her infant daughter.
However, she did not succeed.
Rosa’s granddaughter Normalee Johnsson is currently a retired teacher living in Hanna, Indiana.
In a letter dated in June 2009 she writes: “When mother died, we learned her secret: we had African blood in our veins! Finally we understood why mother always wore a bonnet and long sleeves in the summer. What we could not understand is why she kept our African, Arab, and English heritage a secret. For a while it was shocking that I didn’t know who I really was.”
Normalee Johnsson’s grandchildren, Rosa’s great grandchildren, Anne Lee and John can be found on Facebook, and John is also on MySpace.
Anne Lee, a stunningly beautiful blonde, is a designer by profession. John’s profile states that he is an assistant sales chief in Indiana, has cars as a hobby, he is gay, and his ethnic background is white.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 24.1.2010
The writer has directed a documentary series on “Afro-Finnish History”, aired on the YLE Teema channel.