Black Americans have been migrating to Paris for decades, and the Roaring Twenties, les années folles (the crazy years), were especially significant.
The French had just been introduced to jazz, and they fell in love with Black art and culture. Performers Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet would leave their mark on music. More than two decades later, James Baldwin and Richard Wright would leave their mark on literature. All of them found a home in Paris, seeking to escape the daily trauma that Black people faced in the United States.
Fast forward to today, and African American creatives are still migrating to Paris, while others are finding ways to keep Black history alive in the city.
A wave of Black artists
The French had never seen anyone like Josephine Baker, who moved to Paris in 1925 at 19. When the dancer and singer descended from a palm tree on stage to perform the “danse sauvage,” her fame was established overnight. She was such a hit that European women attempted to darken their skin to look like her and dolls in banana skirts were sold all over Europe. She was the star of “La Revue Nègre” and received top billing at Folies Bergère. She became one of the highest-paid performers in Europe.
Baker’s most important contribution, however, was to civil and human rights. During WWII, she became a spy for the French Resistance, obtaining military secrets from German officers. When she died in 1975, Baker became the first American woman to be buried with full French military honors. Today, part of her home, Château des Milandes, includes a permanent museum, and a square in Montparnasse bears the name Place Josephine Baker.
American musician Sidney Bechet sailed to France with Baker as part of La Revue Nègre. Born in New Orleans in 1897, Bechet was a jazz saxophonist, clarinetist and composer who performed all over Europe. In Paris, he helped raise jazz to cultural prominence in Montmartre. Bechet and his small band would play at other clubs before going to the most popular of them all: Chez Bricktop.
Ada Smith, better known as Bricktop, arrived in 1924 as a singer and dancer, then opened a jazz club in the Montmartre area. Chez Bricktop became the place to be. During WWII, Smith closed the club and opened new ones in Mexico City and Rome before moving back to the United States in 1961. She died in Manhattan in 1984.
Keeping history alive
According to Julia Browne of Walking the Spirit Tours, “Bricktop created a place where everyone could come. You’d have the Prince of Wales, Ernest Hemingway and Gloria Swanson and there was no hierarchy — everyone was equal, and musicians like Bechet were completely accessible.”
Browne, who began her tours in 1994, is one of several guides who run Black history tours in Paris. She said she believes that the tours give travelers and locals the opportunity to physically acknowledge the influence of Black history and culture in Paris but on a wider plane.
“When someone provides feedback that the tours were a ‘spiritual experience’, I understand the depth with which they can touch someone — they may not initially identify what they’re looking for, hoping to feel, but evidently what I’ve shared and the passion I show fills a need,” Browne said.
“Places hold memory,” Browne said. “Tours provide a moment of communing with the history of a place and who made that history.”
At 14 Rue Monsieur le Prince in Paris’s sixth arrondissement, there is a plaque dedicated to Richard Wright, the writer who lived there from 1948 until 1959. Wright, who was born in Mississippi, fled the United States with his Jewish American wife in 1946. Wright, with his books “Uncle Tom’s Children,” “Native Son” and “Black Boy,” was already a best-selling author by the time he got to France.
Wright instantly fell in love with the freedom he experienced as a Black man. In Paris, he was a writer first. Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore and Brasserie Lipp served as offices. It was at Les Deux Magots where Wright met James Baldwin.
Baldwin, only 24 at the time, had arrived in 1948. Unlike Wright, he was unknown, but he too was tired of America’s racism, as well as the discrimination he faced for being gay. Moving to Paris meant that he would be able to finish his first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and draft his collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son,” which was highly critical of Wright’s “Native Son.”
Baldwin’s novels, essays, short stories and plays, in addition to his speeches and interviews, helped establish him as an important voice in the United States and Europe.
Baldwin was made a Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government in 1986, a year before he died. La Ville de Paris has announced that it will name a media library after him in 2023.
One of Baldwin’s closest friends was Tennessee-born painter Beauford Delaney. Like Baldwin, Delaney was Black and gay, and he longed to follow in the footsteps of other Black expats. He moved to Paris in 1953 at age 52. It was there that he created one of his most famous pieces, “Composition 16,” which now hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Monique Wells, founder of Les Amis de Beauford Delaney and co-founder of Entrée to Black Paris, said his legacy is that “he began the abstract expressionist movement in Paris. He was one of only a few Americans doing that here.”
Wells started her tours with a mission to create self-guided itineraries based solely on clients’ interests. Eventually, they became guided tours.
The “Luxembourg Garden” and “Black Paris after World War II” tours are the most popular.
“These tours are important because they increase awareness, understanding, and appreciation of Black cultures, which, in turn, positively influences African American self-esteem and opens the path to social justice,” Wells said.
A haven for modern Black expats
Paris continues to inspire and provide creative havens for Black Americans. Maybe most notably, singer Lenny Kravitz has lived in the city on and off for decades.
Nita Wiggins, a former television broadcaster from Macon, Ga., made Paris her home in 2009. During her 21-year career on U.S. television, she broke reporting barriers and landed exclusive interviews with boxer Muhammad Ali, basketball player Michael Jordan and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. But then things began to change.
“I had gone as far as I could as an over-40 Black female broadcaster,” she said. “I was experiencing economic lynching and decided to go to France to see how I could insert myself, taking my talents and experience with me.”
Wiggins is now the director of the master’s in journalism in English program at the École supérieure de journalisme de Paris, where the university president urged her to write a book, “Civil Rights Baby,” which was published in 2019.
Zachary James Miller, an American director, writer, and award-winning film producer, moved to Paris with his French girlfriend in 1990. He had been running a psychological residential treatment facility in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and he decided to take a one-year sabbatical to accompany his girlfriend back to Paris. One year turned into 30.
“Paris is a special place that in some mysterious way inspires creativity,” he said. “The fact so many great Black expats lived and worked here was a great motivator. What’s unknown to many are the generations that have come after the more-famous ones, and those people are mostly unknown, except to us who live here and knew them.”
Singer Linda Lee Hopkins, who is from North Carolina, has been living in Paris since 1991. Hopkins got her first job only one day after arriving. She had sung with Gloria Gaynor, Percy Sledge, Al Jarreau and Michael Bolton in the United States and had just arrived from the island of St. Martin, where she had performed for five years. “Once they found out that there was a new girl in town, everyone started calling me,” she said.
Hopkins has performed with French superstars Eddie Mitchell, Florent Pagny and Christophe Mae, and she appeared on the French version of “The Voice.” Hopkins even opened for Prince once.
She can’t see herself living anywhere else. “There’s so much competition in the U.S.,” Hopkins said. “Here in France, I’m bringing something to the table that no one else has.” She often thinks of the musicians from past years. “I salute them,” she said. “In America, Black folks were getting lynched, but in Paris, there was no barrier when it came to music.”