Paris, France — Few people realize that France has become a multiracial society, largely due to its African, Caribbean and Asian colonial past. But other European, North and South American countries also contribute to the French “melting pot”, and African Americans have played a significant role in its development.
African Americans have lived and worked in Paris since the 1800s. An early success story is that of Victor Séjour, a New Orleans resident who became renown as a playwright and whose work was remarkably popular for most of his career. He lived in Paris for 28 years, and was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery upon his death in 1874.
Paris saw the beginnings of an African American community in the aftermath of World War I. Many black GIs decided to stay in France after having been well received by the French, and others followed them. The mythical “color-blind” society of Paris beckoned – it was viewed as a welcome solace after the heavy burden of racism that permeated every aspect of African American existence in the United States.
It was during this time – the annees folles or “crazy years” – that jazz was introduced to the French and the Parisian love affair with black culture was born. Black musicians, artists and Harlem Renaissance writers found 1920s Paris ready to embrace them with open arms. Montmartre became the center of the small community, with jazz clubs such as Le Grand Duc, Chez Florence and Bricktop’s thriving in this welcoming atmosphere.
Langston Hughes’ first experience in Paris revolved around this lively area, where he served as a busboy at Le Grand Duc. Blacks opened restaurants and other businesses in the neighborhood as well. Though artists such a Henry O. Tanner and Augusta Savage tended to establish themselves on the Left Bank, the majority of activity in the African American community occurred in Montmartre.
The ultimate example of African American success in Paris was that of the career of Josephine Baker. Opening at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in 1925, Ms. Baker took the town by storm with her Danse Sauvage (Savage Dance). She would adopt France as her home, going undercover for the Resistance during World War II, starting her Rainbow Tribe in the French countryside and dying in the French capital 50 years after she was catapulted to fame and fortune. She was honored with a state funeral, and as many as 20,000 people crowded around La Madeleine church to say their final farewells to this remarkable woman.
World War II brought all the fanfare to an abrupt halt. The Nazi invasion of Paris in June 1940 meant suppression of the “corrupt” influence of jazz in the French capital and danger of imprisonment for African Americans choosing to remain in the city. Most Americans, black as well as white, left Paris at this time.
African American pianist Arthur Briggs refused to leave, and was confined in an interment camp just north of Paris for almost four years. Eugene Bullard, a decorated volunteer in the French army in World War I and successful businessman in Black Montmartre, also chose to stay in Paris after the Occupation. But he was wounded after volunteering for a second time to serve in the French military, and joined millions of other French citizens in the march south before advancing Nazi troops. He finally succeeded in escaping the country from the southern resort town of Biarritz, where he boarded a ship to the United States.
The end of World War II brought a new generation of African Americans to Paris. Richard Wright was probably the most influential of the “black intellectuals” who took up residence on the Left Bank of the Seine. He decided to raise his family in Paris, settling there permanently in 1947. He also became involved in literary and political activities such as the founding of the journal Presence Africaine and the establishment of the French-American Fellowship, a group committed to promoting racial equality.
James Baldwin also spent a great deal of time in Paris, though he never considered it to be truly home. He traveled back and forth between France and America several times, ultimately resigning himself to becoming a permanent expatriate. During later trips to the U.S. he became increasingly involved in the civil rights struggle emerging in the U.S., and eventually organized a march on the American Embassy in Paris to support Dr. King’s March on Washington in 1963.
The political upheavals surrounding the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests in the United States were mirrored by civil unrest in France. African American William Gardner Smith, who worked for the French news service Agence France-Presse, reported the events of the student uprising in May 1968. Many blacks supported this movement, which escalated into a virtual shutdown of the entire country. Once order was restored however, a notable increase in repressive tendencies was observed in the French police and immigration authorities. People of color were more commonly singled out, and if collusion with the student uprising was suspected or proven, deportation was often the result.
Still, African Americans continued to settle in Paris, as they do to this day. Despite the evidence of racism in French society, particularly the unashamed and outspoken bigotry of the political party called the National Front, black Americans often find that their American citizenship carries more weight than the color of their skin. In addition, the presence of enclaves of blacks from many African nations and the Caribbean offer African Americans the chance to experience black culture in a way that they cannot at home.
For the past several years, business and professional people have increasingly taken their place beside the artists, musicians and writers who have traditionally comprised Paris’ African American population. Photographers, engineers, chefs and attorneys are among the black professionals currently residing there. Thus the African American community found in Paris today can be considered as rich and diverse as those communities found throughout the United States.