Paris Reflections: The Sorbonne

Paris Reflections: The Sorbonne
The famous Sorbonne needs no introduction. In the following excerpt, Paris Reflections presents aspects of African-American history and contemporary life that are an integral part of this venerable institution. Sadly, due to increased security after 9/11, the public is no longer allowed access to the courtyard as described below. But the chapel is now open for expositions, despite its need for additional renovation. —Continue up rue Saint-Jacques to the next intersection (rue des Ecoles) and turn right. Standing at the corner, look across the street. Here, spanning the entire block, you can see the facade of the famous Sorbonne. Several notable African Americans have studied here over the last two centuries. In just a few minutes you will have a view of its famous chapel… …Proceed up rue des Ecoles (one of two Roman decumani, or east-west thoroughfares), stopping briefly in front of square Paul Painlevé on the place of the same name. Here you have a full frontal view of the museum. Inside the gate to the left stands a sculpture of the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, symbolic of the founders of Rome. The offices of the publisher Liana Levi were once located at number 5 on the square – this company published some of the works of Ernest Gaines. Cross the intersection at place Paul Painlevé and stand just opposite the Brasserie Balzar, which neighbors the Sorbonne at No. 49, rue des Ecoles. This restaurant retains its original quaint, cramped charm, even though it has now been purchased by the restaurant moguls the Blancs brothers (les frères Blancs). In such close proximity to the university, it is not surprising that several participants of the first Congress of Negro Artists and Writers convened at the Sorbonne in 1956 by the Société Africaine de Culture (African Cultural Society) chose to meet here to debate issues. Richard Wright also dined here frequently in 1946 when he rented a room on nearby boulevard Saint-Michel to type his manuscripts. Cross rue des Ecoles at its intersection with rue de la Sorbonne to walk past the Balzar. Continue to the next intersection, rue Champollion … … At the end of rue Champollion you enter the place de la Sorbonne. Turn left for a magnificent view of the seventeenth-century chapel of the Sorbonne, which is unfortunately no longer open to visits by the public except on special occasions. Built in the classic style, it houses Cardinal Richelieu’s tomb. African-American art and photography were exhibited here in 1985 at an exposition entitled “The Atlanta in France”. Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and French Minister of Culture Jack Lang were present to open the event. Proceed toward the chapel and turn left onto rue de la Sorbonne. At No. 17 is the entrance to the courtyard. Upon entering, you will see another view of the chapel to your right. White marks on the ground delineate the boundaries of the original college, founded by Robert Sorbon in 1253 on the rue du Sommerard and moved to this site sometime afterward. As stated previously, many notable African Americans have studied here. Anna Julia Cooper rose from slavery to become the first African American to obtain a Ph.D. from this university in 1925, defending her dissertation at the age of 66! Carter G. Woodson, Countee Cullen, William Emmet Coleman, Gwendolyn Bennett and Angela Davis are among many others who lingered in this courtyard and attended classes in these hallowed halls. The Sorbonne has been the site for many events for, by and/or about African Americans. The 1992 conference “African Americans and Europe” has already been mentioned. In 1996, a conference on African-American Music and Europe was co-sponsored by the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute of Harvard University and the Université de Paris III. In July 2000, Harvard professor Cornel West addressed a group of African Americans who gathered to celebrate the vibrant history of African Americans in Paris. And in October 2000, a conference on the African Diaspora included scores of African-American professors and scholars, as well as resident African Americans who provided entertainment and served as ambassadors of good will to visitors participating in the conference. While the amphitheaters are likely to be occupied by students or closed to the public, a quick visit may be possible. When you come to the amphitheaters, gently try the doors and if they are open and unoccupied, take a look inside. Almost immediately opposite the entrance to the courtyard, look for the doors marked Joseph Victor Le Clerc and Victor Cousin. Entering either of these doors will take you into a corridor from which you can access the amphitheaters. The Richelieu amphitheater (straight ahead with entrances on either side of the stairwell) is where Anna Julia Cooper defended her Oberlin College dissertation on French policies concerning slavery during the Revolution. The Descartes amphitheater on the left was the site of the conference of black writers that was sponsored by the African Cultural Society (Société Africaine de Culture) described previously. The Salle Louis Liard on the right is where Cornel West spoke in July 2000. And the Grand amphitheater (located in another area and generally closed to the public) was the site of the inaugural session of a conference “African-American Music and Europe” in 1996. — Monique Y. Wells is co-owner of Discover Paris!  – Personalized Itineraries for Independent Travelers as well as the author of Food for the Soul – A Texas Expatriate Nurtures her Culinary Roots in Paris and Paris Reflections  –  Walks Through African-American Paris (co-authored with BP writer/editor Christiann Anderson).
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