It’s shortly past 5:30 p.m. when Shola Adisa-Farrar meets us in Lower Montmartre, in a park in front of the bustling Trinite Church.
We are in Paris, and this neighborhood, Montmartre, was once so popular with African Americans it was known as the “Harlem of the City of Lights”. Adisa-Farrar, our guide, might argue that level of esteem is just as strong today.
The newly minted Parisian and Oakland, Cal., native originally moved to New York to pursue a singing and acting career. Influenced by songstress Nina Simone, who also lived in Paris, Adisa-Farrar came to the city three years ago with the intent of staying just one year. Today she is finding steady work performing soul and jazz music under a Competency and Talent Visa, a distinction that means she has a project that benefits both France and the United States.
Working her day job with Walking the Spirit Tours, she will give our group of Black American journalists and other visitors a two-hour walking tour outlining the incredible story of the African Americans who came to this neighborhood with similar dreams and used their expressive culture to change the city – forever.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Montmartre attracted legends such as singer Josephine Baker, airman Eugene Bullard, Ada “Bricktop” Smith and the Harlem Hellfighters, a popular jazz ensemble of Black American military men.
Strolling the streets of Montmartre, touching buildings where Bricktop had her famous club, imagining avenues full of Black expats out for a Saturday night, one can almost hear the music of Sidney Bechet, a New Orleans jazz performer who found fame in the neighborhood.
The artists were attracted to Paris because it was a place to escape racism and fulfill dreams of writing, making music, painting, and dancing. Dr. Brenda Berrian, the second ever African American woman graduate of the esteemed Univesite de Paris III-Nouvelle Sorbonne and professor of Africana studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said soldiers such as the Hellfighters were first to spark the exodus that eventually reached the Black creative class.
“African American soldiers came to France during World War II and when they came to Paris they were treated like anybody else. They could sleep in hotels and eat at restaurants but back at their bases it was still segregated. They came back to the states to report that,” she said.
The history is heady. But Black Americans continue to come to Paris chasing dreams, including a new generation with aspirations spanning education, entrepreneurship, medicine and other professions not immediately associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
Patrice Armstrong, a nutritionist from the D.C./Maryland area who was working in Venezuela in 2009, said a desire to connect with the African diaspora and the knowledge that many live in French-speaking countries was her ultimate push toward Paris. After meeting a representative from Dannon Foods in Thailand in 2009, Armstrong took on a position with the company’s nutrition science research project three years later.
She said racism toward African-Americans in France isn’t as overt as in the United States. All the same, she said it’s still difficult to escape stereotypes.
“The fact that I’m not overweight, because they think all African-American women are overweight and I don’t wear tennis shoes most days [comes up]. They still have a set of expectations as we have for them when they come to [the United States],” she said.
Even Dr. Berrian, who earned her doctorate from Sorbonne in 1976 and has visited Paris on and off for decades, can’t elude biases.
“They all think we can sing and dance at the drop of a hat. People say can you sing a Whitney Houston song?” she noted with a chuckle.
Assumptions aside, opportunities to pursue your passions abound for Blacks in Paris, said Julia Browne, founder of Walking the Spirits tours. Browne, who fell in love with the city as a young girl, said her entire view of the city changed after taking a course at the Sorbonne on jazz musicians, entertainers, writers and artists who found personal and professional fulfillment in Paris.
“I had finally found my personal connection, a sense of historical pride living in this foreign, iconic city, just as the expatriates had,” she says.
Twenty years later, her tours continue, a bridge between the history of the artists who came nearly 75 years ago and those like Adisa-Farrar, Armstrong and Berrian who are finding their way today.