The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Berlin subway stop is called ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ Some Black Germans want change.

Diaga Müller at the Onkel Toms Hütte U-Bahn station in Berlin on Aug. 16. The station name, which translates to "Uncle Tom's Cabin," reflects Germany's fascination with the U.S. antebellum South. Müller and other activists in Germany are working to get this and other names changed. (Marzena Skubatz for The Washington Post)

Most outbound commuters on the U3 line of Berlin’s U-Bahn subway system exit long before reaching the penultimate stop, nestled between the Grunewald forest and the Free University. But Moses Pölking remembers the uneasiness he felt when he was riding the train and first spotted the station’s peculiar name on the route map: Onkel Toms Hütte.

A Black German born and raised in Berlin, Pölking, then a teenager, was on his way to play basketball at a recreation center nearby when he noticed the name, German for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He hadn’t read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 antislavery novel, but he was familiar with the anti-Black slur “Uncle Tom.” A few years later, he read the book and began to “connect more dots.”

“I was so confused,” said Pölking, now 24. “Because I didn’t know if what I was thinking was actually the reason behind the name, or if it was just a funny coincidence.” The novel lends its name not only to a neighborhood, but also to a nearby street, Onkel-Tom-Strasse, and a Bauhaus housing development.

The hatred these Black women can’t forget as they near 100 years old

Pölking, whose mother is Cameroonian and father is White German, thought the name was offensive to Black Germans. After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, he noticed petitions to change disrespectful place names gaining traction in Germany. Together with Lewamm Ghebremariam, an organizer and campaign strategist, Pölking started an online petition that summer to change the name of the U-Bahn station and street. Since then, the petition has collected more than 14,000 signatures.

But 170 years after the novel was first published, the name remains in this neighborhood and others across Germany.

Pölking, a professional basketball player, is one of several Black Germans who have used activism and scholarship to shed light on what they describe as Germany’s racist fascination with the American South. Their efforts come amid feelings of exclusion in a place that “still does a very good job of representing itself to the outside as a very White country,” said Anne Potjans, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

How George Floyd’s killing sparked a global reckoning

Potjans is of White German and African American descent. When she was growing up, she said, her mixed heritage helped her understand how much Black history and culture shaped Germany. She noted Germany’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade, its colonization of significant parts of Africa, and subsequent African migration to Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to Berlin folklore, the name Onkel Toms Hütte derives from a beer garden run by a man named Thomas in southwest Berlin in the late-19th century, said Heike Paul, the chair of American studies at the University of Erlangen–Nuremberg. But other places of leisure in Germany are also called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she noted, undercutting that explanation. Paul said that in the decades after the novel’s publication, “there was obviously a very strong pastoralization of slavery” among White German readers who trivialized its brutality and interpreted the book’s setting as tranquil and rustic.

Potjans said contemporary White Germans often point to the “Thomas” origin story to justify the name. “I think it’s very symptomatic of Germany that there is a big discrepancy between people who actually understand what the problem is and people who very strongly do not want to think about that,” she said.

Pölking’s petition faced criticism, including counter-petitions to preserve the Onkel Toms Hütte name. In 2020, Pölking met unsuccessfully with local political leaders, he said, noting that other issues, including the coronavirus pandemic and the need to assist Ukrainian refugees in Germany, have taken priority for them in the years since.

“I’m disappointed,” said Pölking, “because what I’m asking for is not much.”

Constanze Siedenburg, a spokesperson for the Berlin agency in charge of public transit, said the subway station’s name “is aimed towards Onkel-Tom-Strasse” and that a renaming could mislead passengers, “since the station has borne this name since its opening in 1929 and it is well established among passengers.”

Nina Badur, a spokesperson for the Steglitz-Zehlendorf district, where the station and neighborhood are located, said there have been a “a lot of calls against this petition in which local residents have spoken out against the renaming.”

The use of “Uncle Tom” language in Germany extends beyond a few place names. In 2008, after U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the left-leaning German newspaper Die Tageszeitung ran a photo of the White House on its cover with the caption, “Onkel Baracks Hütte,” stylized to mimic the U-Bahn station name, and defended its decision in the wake of American criticism. The paper also published a 2004 story about former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, called “Uncle Tom’s Rice.”

Whose race problem? Obama's problematic treatment in Europe.

There are plenty of German place names and structures in Germany that activists consider racist or insensitive. Diaga Müller, a 23-year-old student at Humboldt University and member of its newly formed Black Student Union, cited the “really problematic” benches resembling African statues at another U3 station, Dahlem Dorf.

Cedric Essi, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Osnabrück with a Nigerian father and White German mother, gave the examples of Mohrenstrasse (“Moor Street”), which is being renamed after activists called it racist, and Berlin’s African Quarter, a neighborhood where streets are named after German colonial leaders and former African colonies.

Tiffany Florvil, an associate history professor at the University of New Mexico who studies Black German history, noted Germans’ persisting “fascination” with the American South, including a restaurant in Hamburg called Louisiana whose Southern iconography “can be upsetting for Black Germans and other people across the African diaspora.” Florvil and Potjans brought up the increasing presence of Confederate flags in Germany, which they said are linked to far-right movements.

They also mentioned Germans’ appropriation of Indigenous symbols, including at Native American “appreciation clubs,” where Germans don Indigenous regalia.

“I think there’s just a fascination with what Germans perceive as an ‘exotic other,’ and they try to draw affinities with those ‘others’ that are quite offensive at times,” Florvil said.

U.S. Army investigating after Confederate flag is raised at barracks in Germany

Black activism is on the rise in Germany. The Humboldt Black Student Union was formed after Floyd’s murder, said Müller, who is of White German and Senegalese descent. Ghebremariam noted ongoing efforts to secure legal recognition that the German equivalent of the “n-word” is racist regardless of context. Germany has recently promised to repatriate its collection of Benin bronzes and other African treasures, and it handed over some artifacts to Nigeria in July.

Germany has agreed to return Nigeria’s looted treasure. Will other countries follow?

Scholars and activists also emphasized the importance of teaching about the brutality of German colonialism in school and university curriculums. While Germany has made substantial efforts to reckon with its history of Nazism and antisemitism, activists said that is not so true of Germany’s colonial history and its continued engagement with narratives of the American South. Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel “Gone With the Wind” was recently retranslated into German and received rave reviews for maintaining the “dynamism and optimism of the original.”

“I would understand this weird fascination with the South as a safe way to engage with desires of White supremacy,” Essi said.

Pölking is studying to be a history teacher and aspires to teach students about the German colonization of Africa and its modern legacy, including ongoing racism toward Black Germans. He hopes to reignite the spark around his petition to change the name of Onkel Toms Hütte, remembering his many visits to the area, which he described as a peaceful neighborhood surrounded by lush greenery.

“You’re away from the noise of the city, and it’s a nice getaway to calm down and relax,” he recalled. “When you’re there, it’s not like you’re constantly on alert.”

The uneasiness, Pölking said, only creeps back when he remembers exactly where he is. “It’s just the name that bothers you.”