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A Black History Tour of Paris

By Nneka M. Okona

Feb 4, 2020

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Leading jazz musicians such as Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey were among the African American artists to grace the stage at Caveau de la Huchette after the Paris club opened in 1947.

Photo by Alamy

Leading jazz musicians such as Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey were among the African American artists to grace the stage at Caveau de la Huchette after the Paris club opened in 1947.

Follow in the footsteps of prominent African American writers, artists, musicians, and activists who sought refuge in Paris during the 19th and 20th centuries.

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The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower in 2014 I was in awe. In the trips I’ve made to Paris since then, however, my travels have taken a new twist, finding ways to appreciate and understand black history in Paris—both the important role the city played in African American history, and how black Americans helped shape the identity of the French capital itself.

African Americans looked to Paris as early as the 19th century. Some were in search of a more peaceful environment as racism swelled in the United States. Others found themselves in Paris and other parts of France during World War I, when about 200,000 African American soldiers were brought over as part of the U.S. army. Following the war, many of these soldiers decided to remain in the country after receiving a generally welcoming reception from the French people. A second wave of African Americans flocked to Paris during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, when black artists and activists like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, and Duke Ellington went looking for a place to freely create where they felt celebrated, which Paris provided. 

“There, you can be whatever you want to be. Totally yourself,” Langston Hughes once wrote of the city, according to African American novelist Paule Marshall’s memoir, Triangular Road (Civitas Books, 2009)Legendary jazz musician Miles Davis also declared his love for Paris in a 1989 autobiography, stating: “It was the freedom of being in France and being treated like a human being, like someone important. Even the band and the music we played sounded better over there.” 

At these historic Paris locations, you can follow in the footsteps of prominent African Americans who once lived as expats in the city. Use them, like I did, as a starting point to discover the French capital in a lesser-known light.

Café de la Régence

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The Palais-Royal is in the middle of Paris’s 1st arrondissement near major landmarks like the Louvre, Jardin des Tuileries, and Arc de Triomphe. This central location and proximity to popular attractions makes the nearby Café de la Régence a special spot to have a cup of coffee or a pain au chocolat. Since the café’s opening in 1670, it’s been a place for intellectuals in Paris to meet, converse, and play chess. This, perhaps, is why it was a favorite for Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, writer, and scholar who was born enslaved in Maryland but escaped after 20 years. While he was visiting Paris during the winter of 1887, Douglass often met with his close friend Theodore Tilton, a white American abolitionist, at this popular café on Rue Saint-Honoré.

In 1927, Josephine Baker became the first African American to star in a major motion picture, which was a silent film made in France.

Place Josephine Baker

Celebrated entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker spoke often about her deep reverence for Paris. The African American performer, who in 1937 renounced her U.S. citizenship to become a French national, once said: “I have two loves, my country and Paris.” The City of Lights is where Baker’s dancing career blossomed; in 1927, she became the first African American to star in a major motion picture (the French silent film Siren of the Tropics), and that same year, her headlining performance at the still-standing Folies Bergère cabaret hall solidified Baker as a main symbol of the 1920s Jazz Age.

There are several nods to Baker’s legacy throughout Paris, one of which is Place Josephine Baker—a square in the Left Bank’s Montparnasse area dedicated to the naturalized French performer, who spent most of her life in the Paris neighborhood. Today, a metal placard affixed on a pole in a shaded area remains as a steady reminder of the life she lived and all she gave—whether it was acting as a spy for her adopted country or refusing to perform for segregated audiences in the United States. 

Arc de Triomphe 

Although the Arc de Triomphe is already regarded as a must-see landmark in Paris, there are tidbits of little-known histories related to the site—one of which has to do with the legacy of African American soldier Eugene Ballard. Born in Georgia during the late 19th century, Ballard left the United States for France to flee Jim Crow persecution in 1912. While in Paris, Ballard worked as a boxer and later enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. A few years later, he became the first-ever African American military pilot. In 1954, the French government invited Ballard to reignite the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe due to his former service. After, he was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honor.

Novelists such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Chester Himes were known to visit the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris’s Latin Quarter.

Shakespeare and Company

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On a secluded back street in the Latin Quarter, the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company has been a safe haven for book lovers in the French capital since it opened in 1919. In its earliest days, African American editors of the literary magazine Paris Review dubbed the shop as their hangout. Since then, many famed African American authors, including Richard Wright and Chester Himes, have hosted talks and discussions in the independent bookstore. James Baldwin, who wrote a number of his famed novels, among them Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni’s Room (1956), during his time in Paris, was frequent customer at the store, which is still open today.

Café Tournon was a regular spot for African American writers and artists who lived as expats in Paris during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, including jazz musician Duke Ellington (pictured above).

Café Tournon

Walk into this 6th arrondissement establishment tucked under classic Parisian apartments on the Rue de Tournon and you’ll be surrounded by locals feasting on escargot or sipping glasses of beaujolais. Throughout the ’20s, this Parisian café was a regular haunt for African American writers, artists, and expats who sought out life in the French capital after the end of World War I. Its most famous frequent customers included jazz legend Duke Ellington, painter Beauford Delaney, and later writers James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Chester Himes, who often gathered at Café Tournon to converse about the joys and pains of their artistic lives. Dizzy Gillespie’s jazz band even made its debut here, too, in the 1950s. Today, the establishment’s mahogany chairs and speckled floor are an ode to 20th-century Parisian flair, as are the block white letters outside the café that announce its name.

Caveau de la Huchette

Near the Latin Quarter in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, the Caveau de la Huchette—which is often compared to a cavern in appearance (hence its name)—has earned a reputation for being particularly welcoming to African American jazz musicians since its 1947 inception. Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey were some of the leading American jazz musicians who graced the stage at this club. Today, visitors can hear a live performance every evening of the week. (Admission costs $15 on Sunday through Thursday, $17 on Friday and Saturday, and $11 for students under 25 years old with valid identification.)

Take a guided black history tour in Paris


Ricki Stevenson’s Black Paris Tours

For a more structured approach to exploring black history in Paris, consider taking an organized tour through Ricki Stevenson’s Black Paris Tours. Founded by Stevenson in 1998, the tour company offers walking and city bus tours (both group and private) to Parisian sites that were made famous by African American musicians, writers, and activists, including stops at many of the aforementioned locations.

Walking the Spirit Tours

Walking the Spirit Tours also operates similar “Black Paris and Beyond” walking and private bus itineraries. One such tour focuses on the La Goutte d’Or neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement, which is known for its North and West African populations and its open-air market, le Marché Dejean, where various stands sell special herbs and other ingredients for traditional African cuisines.

Entrée to Black Paris

In addition to guided tours, Entrée to Black Paris offers narrated walking tours (downloadable for $28) for those seeking a self-led experience. One audio tour route spotlights Richard Wright’s Parisian haunts; the other navigates Paris’s Montparnasse suburb, which Josephine Baker called home.

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