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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 April, 2005, 07:21 GMT 08:21 UK
Boom for black tourism in Paris
Hugh Schofield
By Hugh Schofield
Paris

Paris has always had powerful associations for African-Americans.

Guide showing tourists around Paris
Several operators are offering culturally-specific tours

It is where Thomas Jefferson lived with his devoted slave Sally Hemings; where jazz first captivated Europe at the end of World War I.

It is also where generations of black writers and intellectuals came to enjoy the taste of freedom.

Until recently, it was impossible for visitors to the French capital to gain more than a fleeting impression of the city's role in the development of the African-American identity.

But over the last few years a new form of tourism has appeared thanks to growing demand from the educated black middle class in the US.

Several operators are now offering culturally-specific guided tours to open up the rich heritage of Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and the countless others who came to France to escape the suffocating restrictions of their homeland.

Black history

"African-Americans are constantly aware that we have a legacy which it will be very hard - perhaps impossible - to shed.

"It's a question of constantly being made to feel you are second best," says Monique Wells, of Discover Paris, which offers walking itineraries around Paris.

"We are constantly trying to validate ourselves. And that is why cultural tourism to places like Paris is becoming so important."

A typical tour begins at the Arc de Triomphe, which the abolitionist leader William Wells Brown climbed in 1849 and afterwards said that "you could look out over a city where you are finally free, even from bounty hunters and fugitive slave laws".

Casino de Paris
In 1917, the Casino de Paris hosted the first ever jazz concert
Below - at Number 92 on the Champs Elysees - lies the former US embassy where the future president, Thomas Jefferson, started what may or may not have been a sexual affair with Hemings.

Many African-Americans believe he was the father of her seven children, though the issue remains hotly debated.

It was also down the Champs Elysees that the famed Harlem Hellfighters and other black regiments paraded at the end of World War I - an episode which was a turning-point in the love affair between black Americans and France.

More than 250,000 black soldiers came to France after 1917 but they were looked on with disdain by their white commanders and consigned to menial tasks behind the lines.

But the French recognised their potential and attached the black troops to their own army.

The Harlem Hellfighters - the US Army's 369th regiment from New York City - saw the longest period of action of any American unit and was the first to reach the river Rhine.

"The French treated them like human-beings, and black Americans never forgot it," says Ricki Stevenson, of Black Paris Tours.

Artists and intellectuals

Musicians attached to black units, such as Louis Mitchell and James Europe, introduced Paris to jazz, which has been a passion here ever since.

When black people come here they only have to open their mouths to be immediately classed as simply American.
Monique Wells,
Discover Paris
The first ever jazz concert in the city was in 1917 at the Casino de Paris.

If few landmarks of the time survive, visitors can still wander the streets of lower Montmartre and recall the thriving black club scene of the 1920s when characters like Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Adelaide Hall, and, of course, Josephine Baker surfed the craze known as negrophilie.

Writers followed. Members of the so-called Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes hung out in 1920s Montparnasse, and after World War II a new generation of African-Americans took advantage of the GI Bill to live out a bohemian, and unsegregated, Paris existence.

Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin are only the best-known.

"It was a rite of passage for black American intellectuals," says Ricki Stevenson.

"Paris was a place to come and think, take a broader view of the world, where - for once - your ideas and talents counted for more than your colour."

Other spots on the itinerary include the Madeleine church, where the funeral of Josephine Baker took place in style in 1975; the Grand Hotel on the Place de l'Opera where W.E.B. Dubois organised the first Pan African Congress in 1919; and Haynes restaurant in the 9th arrondissement, opened by an African-American in 1949 and still going strong.

The unifying theme of the tours is the vision harboured by generations of black Americans that France was a country where they could more easily be themselves - free from the obstructions and assumptions that limited their lives back home.

So much has changed in the last decades, but oddly enough, according to Monique Wells, something of that sense of affirmation is still felt by black Americans when they come to Paris as tourists.

"African-Americans are above all... Americans. Even if we have been made to suffer for it, our culture is an American culture," she says.

"When black people come here they only have to open their mouths to be immediately classed - not as black, or coloured - but simply American.

"And for many that is a strange and exhilarating experience."


SEE ALSO:
Paris woos US tourists
04 Jul 03 |  Europe
French confront US 'smears'
16 May 03 |  Europe


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