PARIS — Any American with even a slight familiarity with Paris knows about Josephine Baker, the black swivel-hipped cabaret entertainer who shunned racism in America, vaulted to stardom here in 1925, and stayed on to become one of France’s most adored 20th century icons.
But what about William Wells Brown, the 19th-century former slave turned abolitionist who once expressed awe that he could pray next to whites at La Madeleine church, or that some tipped their hat to him on Paris streets?
Both historical figures are prominently featured in Black Paris Tours, offering a glimpse of the mutual love affair between black Americans and the City of Light.
Tour guide Ricki Stevenson recently escorted four black tourists from Texas, who braved the weak U.S. dollar and a chilly and wet winter day as part of a birthday-celebration getaway.
They chose the full-day option — $129 per person for a trek zigzagging through offbeat areas like the Parc Monceau, where poet Langston Hughes once lived in maid’s chambers, or a bustling, working-class area that Stevenson dubs “Little Africa.”
Stevenson, an Oklahoma native and former TV journalist, has more than enough material to work with: Even after an information-packed tour lasting nine hours, one can’t help thinking she had only scratched the surface.
The tour was especially eye-opening in France, where minorities from the substantial black and North African communities — often with origins in former French colonies — are not quantified in the census. The state considers everyone simply French, in its bid to be officially colorblind and stem discrimination. In practice, though, North African immigrants and their children do complain of discrimination, and riots broke out in immigrant areas in 2005.
American blacks in France, though, are a category unto themselves.
“In many ways, African Americans came to France as a sort of privileged minority, a kind of model minority, if you will — a group that benefited not only from French fascination with blackness, but a French fascination about Americanness,” said Tyler Stovall, a history professor of the University of California, Berkeley. “Jazz comes to France at roughly the same time as Hollywood movies — both are embraced enthusiastically.”
Baker, who dazzled Paris audiences with her skimpy outfits and banana skirts, gets high billing in this tour. But so do jazz greats like Sidney Bechet, a longtime Paris resident, and the all-black 369th Regiment of World War I best known as the Harlem Hellfighters.
Paris tours about black history have come and gone, but Stevenson’s — now in its ninth year — has unusual lasting power.
This is informal, personal touch tourism: Don’t look for a heated tour bus or lunch included. Like everyday Parisians, you get around by Metro or — better for sightseeing — public bus. Forget the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower.
After meeting at a bakery on the Champs-Élysées, the tour crisscrossed the Right Bank, hitting sites unlikely to be seen in standard tour guidebooks, like a statue of Alexandre Dumas, whose mother was Haitian; a cabaret hall where Baker was the main attraction; and an ornate hotel where W.E.B. Du Bois hosted the Pan African Congress in 1919.
Stevenson dressed up the visit with props, like a reproduction lithograph of Brown, and a jazz recording. She pointed out the architectural similarities of Paris and Washington, D.C., to better translate France for her guests.
Stevenson briefed her charges with advice on how not to ruffle Parisians — like always saying “Bonjour” to shop personnel, and not attributing slow restaurant service to racism but to the one-size-fits-all aloofness of many Paris waiters.
“The French don’t do bacon and eggs,” Stevenson warned her guests.
“Yeah, we found out,” said Greta Burton, 52, with a comic groan. The Dallas realtor arranged their tour day as part of a getaway in France for the 60th birthday of friend Dora (French nickname: “Marie-Claire”) Morris — along with her daughters, Angela Morris and Sonja Baty.
The first stop was the Arc de Triomphe, where the encyclopedic Stevenson said former American slaves who made it to France in the 19th century came to sense freedom beyond the reach of bounty hunters.
“For the first time, you’re not looking over your shoulder, going, ‘Are they after me? Are they going to catch me?’” said Stevenson. “There were laws that protected the African Americans who came here.”
Stevenson cited unofficial figures indicating that up to 50,000 free blacks came here from Louisiana in the decades after Napoleon sold the territory to the United States in 1803, fearing greater restrictions under the new authorities.
The best-known wave of black Americans to France came during World War I, when some 200,000 were brought over to fight.
“Ninety percent of these soldiers were from the South, and the idea that they could actually talk to white women without immediately being lynched was a revelation to them,” said Stovall, author of “Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light,” by phone.
“They wrote letters back home … that were often published in the black press,” he said. “That helped create this idea of France as this paradise of racial tolerance.”
After the war, many black musicians migrated to feed France’s infatuation with jazz.
Stevenson packs the tour with a dose of African pride: Africans explored France before it was a country; French farmers learned skills in animal husbandry and ironmaking from Africans; Napoleon admired Hannibal, the North African general of Rome-fighting fame in antiquity, she said. She gave credence to the theory that the first model for the French-designed Statue of Liberty was a freed slave — an assertion that The Associated Press could not confirm.
The Paris tourism office had little advice about such ethnically oriented boutique tourism, other than to mention a tour of sites of interest to Indian visitors. Last year, the Arab World Institute in Paris began hosting a walking tour, but it’s on hold until springtime.
France’s effort to ignore racial differences hasn’t succeeded in abolishing racism. Even the French anti-discrimination agency acknowledges that many young blacks and Arabs today struggle for acceptance or land jobs.
The main racism that American blacks may have felt here was of the imported variety, brought by American whites. Some Paris restaurants and cafés set up “white-only” and “black only” sections in the late 1920s — at the behest of white American patrons, Stovall said.
Undaunted by being crammed on a rush hour Paris subway, Dora Morris said she liked the tour’s slice-of-life feeling.
“Most tours don’t put you into actual life … We were seeing things, we were learning historic things, but we’re part of the mainstream,” said Morris, a retired elementary school teacher. “You want to see how people really live.”
For her daughters, it was the learning experience that counted.
“These are things you read about in the history books … Ricki’s able to fill in some gaps,” said Baty, a 40-year-old software consultant. “I honestly had no idea that so many African Americans were involved in the history of France.”
If You Go...
BLACK PARIS TOURS: www.blackparistour.com. Offered Tuesday-Friday, year-round except for August, late December and January.
Cost: $129 per person for a daylong tour (does not include lunch), and $86 for a half-day tour. Discounts for groups of six or more.