Mention the Left Bank in Paris and visions of Bohemian nightspots, university students sipping coffee at sidewalk cafés, and vendors selling books and souvenirs along the Seine River spring to mind. While this image is quintessentially European, the careful observer will also note evidence of African-American influence there!
For example, Caveau de la Huchette, an old, atmospheric jazz club on rue de la Huchette, boasts an image of Louis Armstrong at the entrance. This and numerous other venues in the Left Bank and throughout the city owe their existence to the presence of the African-American musicians who introduced jazz to France in World War I.
Not far away, on rue du Petit Pont, a mosaic likeness of Muhammad Ali graces the façade of the bar Polly Maggoo.
Fliers advertising gospel music concerts abound. At least one such concert is held in the city during any given week!
The African-American influence is much more far-reaching than these physical elements. But one must be extremely knowledgeable or tour the city with a qualified guide to recognize and appreciate it.
Case in point: most Americans don’t realize that the Left Bank was home for celebrated African Americans such as writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes, and artists such as Herbert Gentry, Ed Clark, and Beauford Delaney. They don’t know that Gertrude Stein helped Richard Wright settle in Paris or that James Baldwin rewrote Go Tell It on the Mountain at the famous Café de Flore.
Another case in point: numerous African Americans have studied at the Sorbonne – including Carter G. Woodson, founder of Negro History Week (which is now African-American History Month). French students who participated in the 1968 uprising were inspired by civil rights activists such as Stokely Carmichael and a number of African-American expats who lived in Paris, and who were at the time sympathetic to the movement and offered the students assistance. In collaboration with several other universities, the Sorbonne has organized multiple events honoring and exploring the African-American presence in Europe.
The beautiful Luxembourg Garden was frequented by African-American writers and artists before and after the Second World War. Henry Ossawa Tanner’s works hung in the Luxembourg Museum until 1937 and Lois Maïlou Jones painted several landscapes in the garden before and after the war. Across the street from the garden, a post-WWII crowd of African-American writers, artists, and musicians hung out at the Café Tournon.
Farther west, the Saint Germain des Prés quarter was James Baldwin’s stomping ground. He submitted his famous article Everybody’s Protest Novel to the editors of Zero magazine, which was located near the Saint-Germain church. Art galleries are prominent in this area, and African Americans have exhibited their works at several of them. Down by the river, a 19th-century African American studied at the domed Institut de France (French Institute) before returning to the U. S. to become a Shakespearean actor.
If you’re surprised to learn about the history of African Americans in Paris, you’ll be even more surprised to learn that the information presented here is just the tip of the iceberg! African Americans have over 200 years of history in Paris and their influence extends throughout the entire city, not just the Left Bank. They continue to leave their mark on the city today.
For more information, visit Entrée to Black Paris.
Monique Y. Wells
Monique Y. Wells is the co-founder of Discover Paris! and the creator of Entrée to Black Paris tours.