The history of France and, in particular, Paris, hold within their storied chapters a slightly more unofficial history for African Americans.
Prior to the Louisiana Purchase, blacks living in the French territory were free. After the purchase, in 1803, they immediately began living in a segregated and unjust state (namely, the American South).
While an accurate total is difficult if not impossible to determine, it is estimated that tens of thousands left Louisiana and for France. There they would, once again, be free and live in relative peace.
The second major arrival of African Americans on French soil was during the First World War, when 200,000 American soldiers, who hardly enjoyed life, liberty, and democracy at home in the US, came to fight and die for it in France.
After the war ended, some stayed. Some returned to France in the months and years that followed. In fact, the period between the two World Wars marked a vibrant influx of African Americans, and African American culture, in Paris.
The French discovered American music, kicking off the Jazz Age, as Parisian nightclub owners competed to have the very best American musicians perform in their clubs, skin color be damned. While musicians at the Cotton Club in Harlem had to wait outside in whatever the weather between sets, black Americans in Paris could work, eat, drink, sleep, and socialize wherever they wanted, with whomever they wanted.
Daughter of a St. Louis, Missouri, house maid, Josephine Baker arrived and summarily wowed Parisians and made a home here. She subsequently was awarded a Legion of Honor for her efforts fighting with the resistance during World War II.
She did return to America, but the circumstances were telling: she came to speak at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. Her message was blunt: she told the overflow crowd that she never feared for her safety in France, but she did in the United States.
The mystical pull of Paris on writers, artists, and musicians of all colors and backgrounds continues to this day. Parisians continue to welcome us, as they always have, empathetic and often sympathetic to injustice of any kind, and appreciative of creativity of every kind.
And to them we say, Merci beaucoup.
- paris unofficial