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Paris Has Been A Haven For African Americans Escaping Racism


We've also been exploring the March on Washington 50 years ago. In recent days our colleague Michele Norris has brought us amazing perspectives on that day, a reminder that some moments take decades to understand. This morning we go beyond America's borders. To escape racism at home, many black Americans went abroad. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from the destination for many - Paris.

RICKI STEVENSON: All right, madame. We're looking for the name of the General Dumas and these were some of Napoleon's greatest officers.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: That's Ricki Stevenson, leading a group on one of her popular black Paris tours. She's points to the name of one of Napoleon's generals inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe. He was born in Haiti. Stevenson says the city is rich in black history - especially from American blacks, who've flocked here since the 19th century.

STEVENSON: Many people mistakenly believe that the first great mass migration of African-Americans to France came with the Harlem Renaissance. It didn't. The first great mass migration came following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

BEARDSLEY: Stevenson says blacks went from living free in a French territory to living in an American apartheid state. After World War I broke out, more than 200,000 American black soldiers, mostly from the South, came to France to fight for freedom and democracy - something they didn't have back in their own country.

STEVENSON: Imagine being greeted here with, I won't say open arms, but being a person. It was horrible when they went home. In many cases, the Ku Klux Klan took great pride in lynching a black man if he had on a uniform.

BEARDSLEY: So many American blacks stayed, says Stevenson, and others followed. Black American culture took off in France between the wars.


BEARDSLEY: The French discovered African-American music. And club owners fought to get black bands in what became the leading edge of the Jazz Age. Daughter of a St. Louis housemaid, Josephine Baker moved to France in 1925. She became a star attraction on the Paris nightclub scene and was awarded the French Legion of Honor Medal for fighting in the Resistance in World War II. Baker came back to speak at the 1963 March on Washington and told the crowd she never feared in France, like she did in her own country.


BEARDSLEY: African-American virtuoso Marian Anderson sang at the Paris Opera House years before being barred from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington. Stevenson says French people understood the degradation black Americans faced at home.

STEVENSON: In America, even if you were a well-known musician playing at the Cotton Club. During intermission, you had to go outside, whether it was raining, snowing, whatever.


BEARDSLEY: I meet 85-year-old Clyde Wright at the Montparnasse train station. He's on his way to the south of France to host a jazz festival. Wright came to Europe to tour with his Golden Gate Quartet and stayed. The North Carolina native first arrived in France as a soldier in 1950.

CLYDE WRIGHT: Of course the racial problems were very strong when I came over, because I was with all black troops and we didn't have a right to be mixed with white troops, which I found was ridiculous. Fortunately, Eisenhower, he changed that. However in the Armed Services, I did suffer a lot of prejudice - that's for sure.

BEARDSLEY: Paris also became a black literary scene: Richard Wright came in 1946, James Baldwin in 1949, Angela Davis in 1963.

Tour guide Ricki Stevenson.

STEVENSON: Came a time when, if you were serious about yourself as an artist, as a writer, as an intellectual, that you had to come to Paris.


BEARDSLEY: Ninety-two-year-old poet, writer and professor, James Emanuel came to Paris in the '60s. I make my way to his sixth floor apartment in Montparnasse.




BEARDSLEY: Emanuel is still writing. And as he opens the door, I see every inch of space is covered with stacks of books and papers. Did he live a better life in France?

EMANUEL: No shadow of a doubt.

BEARDSLEY: How was it?

EMANUEL: Because, for example, you could walk down the street in Paris, and you would know that nobody's looking you up and down thinking bad words about you.

BEARDSLEY: Some say the retired Fulbright professor's work hasn't gotten the American acclaim it deserves. I ask him if he should have stayed in the U.S., despite the racism.

EMANUEL: No way. No, no. Again, it's the tragedy that I never can talk about. It was too evil, too vicious. And any country that would tolerate it is a country I can't put my foot in.

BEARDSLEY: Despite his disappointment, Emanuel has hope.

EMANUEL: At last. If America ever solves its racial problem, it will be the greatest country in the world.

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

INSKEEP: You hear her on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.