City of Light is rich in African American history

CNN News Wire | 2/25/2013, 9:26 a.m.

Think Paris, and the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées and haute couture come to mind. But the City of Light also is rich in African American history. Keeping this history alive are tour companies that share it, up close and personal, with visitors to France.

From legendary entertainer Josephine Baker to internationally acclaimed artist Henry Ossawa Tanner to World War I's ragtime-and-jazz-playing "Harlem Hellfighters," Paris has embraced African American culture like few other places. Because of that legendary embrace--one that Black folks in the States had heard about since the 1800s--Paris loomed large in their imaginations. To many who didn't always feel welcome in their native country, the city sounded like a place where they could emotionally exhale.

"It's always been about freedom for us," says Marcus Bruce, the Benjamin E. Mays Professor of Religious Studies at Bates College and author of "Henry Ossawa Tanner: A Spiritual Biography."

Legendary Harlem-born author James Baldwin, who left for Paris in 1948, said "African Americans discover in Paris the terms by which they can define themselves. It's the freedom to work beyond the assumptions of what we can and can't do as African Americans. It's a different rhythm and pace. We can imagine ourselves in new ways in that space."

That's where these treks through African American history come in.

Julia Browne launched Walking the Spirit Tours in 1994, and it became the first company to focus specifically on Black American history in Paris.

Back then, she says, "I'd contact travel agents in the States and they would say, 'Why would people want to do that?'" Times have changed for Browne, who is based near Toronto and frequently travels to France to lead tours.

For example, Browne's "Writers, Artists & Intellectuals" tour traipses through the lively Latin Quarter and chic Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Her guests get to peek inside the Parisian café where Richard Wright wrote and see the urban landscapes that inspired Boston-born painter Lois Mailou Jones. "The Entertainers" tour strolls still-vibrant Montmartre, the quartier where both Josephine Baker and Ada "Bricktop" Smith once owned clubs.

While 85% of Walking the Spirit tour-goers are African American, "We do a lot of school groups from Switzerland, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey and more and more French schools and organizations. It's professors in European universities who are teaching Black studies," says Browne.

"For African Americans or Black Europeans, it creates a tremendous sense of pride and belonging. "Paris is not just a foreign city," says Browne, a certified France specialist who also offers Black history tours elsewhere in France.

Browne has hired a 20-something Walking the Spirit tour guide who moved to Paris from the States to pursue a singing career, and her experience in the city "brings it up to date. People enjoy hearing the real, on-the-ground stories from her."

A new DVD vividly captures much of what Browne's tours bring to life. In "When African Americans Came to Paris," Browne, award-winning documentarian Joanne Burke, and writer/cameraman David Burke feature six short videos that offer a fascinating, early 20th century look at Black Americans in Paris.