Beyond  /  Explainer

A Berlin Subway Stop is Called ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ Some Black Germans Want Change.

Black Germans have used activism and scholarship to shed light on what they describe as Germany’s racist fascination with the American South.

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.

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.

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.