Looking to discover African-American history in Paris? Here’s where to relive the fascinating history of Black Americans in the capital of France — from a Black American living in Europe!
One of the things that fascinated me the most when I moved to London in 2016 was how much Black American history there was to be found in Europe.
From artists like Jimmy Hendrix making a life for himself in London to Josephine Baker and James Baldwin deciding to trade the Jim Crow era of the US for more creative expression and a better lifestyle in Paris.
Over the past few years, I’ve dived deep into how and why so many African Americans made their way to the city of love. And it’s been a beautiful history to discover.
On my last trip to Paris, I decided it was finally time to take my research to life and do a pilgrimage of sorts to all the places African American icons found comfort in Paris — and now, I want to share them with you.
Here’s the best places to discover African-American history in Paris — from a Black American!
Table of Contents
A Quick History of African Americans in Paris
Before you discover African American history in Paris it’s important to have some context. Shall we?
A loose history of African Americans in Paris can be traced back as early as the era of the French Revolution when Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a Haitian of African and French descent, moved to Paris and rose to high-ranking positions in Napoleon’s army.
It’s here he briefly formed the American Legion for free people of colour and would eventually father the famed author known for The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas.
However, it was in the late 19th and early 20th century that Paris became a desired destination for African Americans.
Post-World War I and the Harlem Renaissance
Post World War I and during the Harlem Renaissance, many African American servicemen, intellectuals, and artists discovered a society with less racial discrimination in Paris compared to the United States. Many stayed or returned later to live in Paris.
This era saw the rise of famous African-American expatriates like Eugene Bullard, who would become the first African-American military pilot.
Jazz Age & Post-World War II
The Jazz Age (1920s-30s) saw an influx of African-American artists, writers, and musicians to Paris.
Notable figures such as Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and Lois Mailou Jones, among others, left significant impacts on the Parisian art scene.
This exodus from America was partly due to the feeling of liberation they experienced in a Parisian society that was more permissive and open than the racial discrimination prevalent in America at the time.
In the post-World War II era, black literature found its way to Paris too via luminaries like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Chester Himes who sought freedom from racial oppression in the United States.
These influential writers spent significant portions of their lives in Paris, exploring themes of race and identity that resonated on both sides of the Atlantic.
Late 20th Century to Present Day
Through the late 20th century till today, Paris continues to be a hub for African-American artists, writers, and scholars (if you spend any time in Paris you’ll instantly feel why).
Their distinct experiences and contributions have enriched Parisian culture and enhanced its diversity paired with their significant contributions to diverse fields including academia, arts, business, and culinary in the city.
It’s important to note while Paris provided a more accepting cultural and social environment for many, experiences varied and substantial racial and cultural discrimination still existed in different forms — and of course, still exists today in Paris.
Notable Black American Figures Who Lived in Paris: What Famous African-Americans Moved to France?
Discovering Black American history at the Panthéon,
Of course, dozens, hundreds, if not thousands of Black Americans have lived in Paris over the course of time but here are some of the most notable figures that chose to call the city home.
- Josephine Baker: An iconic performer, dancer, and singer, Baker became a symbol of the Jazz Age in Paris. She was also a civil rights activist and a French Resistance agent during WWII.
- James Baldwin: A prominent African-American author and a critical voice in the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin moved to Paris and engaged in the intellectual life of the city. His time in France profoundly influenced his writings.
- Miles Davis: A legendary jazz trumpeter, Davis spent significant time in Paris during the 1960s, where he became romantically involved with French actress Juliette Gréco.
- Eugene Bullard: The first African-American military pilot, Bullard settled in Paris after being wounded in WWI. He later became a well-known boxer and nightclub owner.
- Langston Hughes: A central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes spent considerable time in Paris, exploring themes of race and identity through his poetry and prose.
- Lois Mailou Jones: A talented painter and educator, Jones lived in Paris for several years, where her work was influenced by African and Caribbean themes.
- Richard Wright: An influential African-American author, Wright lived in Paris and notably wrote “Native Son” during his time there. The novel sparked a feud between him and fellow writer James Baldwin who disagreed on his portrayal of African-Americans in his literature.
- Chester Himes: An African-American author known for his crime novels, Himes moved to Paris in the 1950s and became part of the expatriate community alongside Baldwin and Wright.
Where to Discover African-American History in Paris: 10 Spots to Visit
1. Montmartre & The Latin Quarter
📍18th arrondissement & 5th arrondissement
Let’s begin our journey of African-American history in Montmartre, perched high on a hill with the view of Paris at its feet.
Over the years, this district has been home to many African-American artists, writers, and musicians.
In the bustling streets, the memory of a notable African-American presence lingers, particularly around Chez Haynes (which has ever so sadly since been closed but you can still catch the essence on Rue Clauzel Street).
This famed restaurant was opened by Leroy Haynes, a charismatic African-American entertainer who turned restaurateur.
Chez Haynes was frequented by notable figures such as Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes, turning it into an expansive hub for African-American culture.
Nightlife in Montmartre painted a vivid picture of the Jazz Age, with African-American performers enriching the scene with their talent and charisma.
Ada “Bricktop” Smith, another African-American entertainer, owned Bricktop’s in the Montmarte area as well (temporarily closed), a famed jazz club on Rue Pigalle that was frequented by aficionados of the genre.
Our journey continues south to the intellectual heart of the city, the Latin Quarter.
This district has traditionally been a gathering place for thinkers, artists, and visionaries, among whom were several African-American icons.
Amid the cobbled streets and narrow alleyways, the Sainte-Genevieve Library (which we’ll get to) stands as a beacon of intellectual pursuit.
The district also hosted the famous literary cafés including Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, where African-American thinkers, such as Wright and Baldwin, spent considerable time.
On the academic side, the Sorbonne University, with its rich history of intellectual rigor, welcomed African-American scholars. The University is closely linked with figures like Anna Julia Cooper, who received her doctoral degree here, embodying the aspirations and achievements of African-American intellectuals in Paris.
Even if you don’t go into any of the venues simply being in Montmarte and The Latin Quarter will bring the essence of African-American history in Paris to life as you wander the streets.
2. Shakespeare and Company
📍37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris, France
In 1951 an unassuming bookstore nestled in the heart of Paris’s enigmatic Left Bank opened.
Just steps away from the majestic River Seine, a hub of cultural exchange and intellectual curiosity would bloom at 37 rue de la Bûcherie: the famous Shakespeare and Company.
In the early 20th century, as Paris emerged as a beacon for writers and artists seeking to escape the restrictive social norms of their respective countries, the bookstore opened its doors to cater to their thirst for diverse literature.
Founded and rebirthed by George Whitman, this magical space offered warmth, solace, and inspiration to countless African-American writers seeking refuge in a city where they could breathe and live without the constant oppression they faced back home.
Among these intellectual trailblazers was Richard Wright, who arrived in Paris seeking solace from the racial discrimination he faced in the United States.
As an influential African-American writer, Wright found solace within the labyrinth of books at Shakespeare and Company.
His insights and discussions with fellow patrons and staff inspired his work, as he etched powerful stories that reflected not only the challenges African Americans faced but also their resilience, strength, and dreams.
Another brilliant mind that crossed the threshold of Shakespeare and Company was James Baldwin.
He arrived in Paris with an overwhelming desire to hone his craft and explore his identity wholly, away from the civil rights movement’s tumult in the United States.
In the cozy reading nooks of the bookstore, Baldwin’s distinctive literary voice matured, gaining the fullness and courage that characterized his writing.
Much like his contemporaries, Baldwin engaged in discussions, debates, and introspection, using the dynamic environment of the bookstore to break barriers in literary expression and social understanding.
Shakespeare and Company welcomed these African-American visionaries, offering them a nurturing creative space, an expansive repository of literature, and a connection to like-minded individuals.
The bookstore played an instrumental role in fostering an environment where their work could flourish, free from the constraints of racial prejudice. In turn, their presence deeply enriched the store’s cultural fabric as well.
As the years went by and the world changed, the legacy of these African-American writers continues to thrive at Shakespeare and Company and it still stands as one of the only English bookshops in the city.
The whispers of their conversations, the scratch of their pens, and the beauty of their prose can still be felt, heard, and read within the walls of this cherished Paris landmark, and it’s well worth visiting!
3. Le Caveau de la Huchette
📍5 Rue de la Huchette, 75005 Paris, France
One of my favourite stops on my pilgrimage of Black American history in Paris was Le Caveau de la Huchette.
As you’re strolling down Rue de la Huchette’s ancient street amid the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists alike, the faint sound of jazz emanates from this hidden gem, and trust me, you’ll want to go inside.
Founded in 1946, this jazz club resides within a cellar that dates back to the 16th century and the gripping history of Le Caveau de la Huchette intertwined with a vibrant African-American presence.
As the world was recovering from the ravages of World War II and Paris embraced a resurgence of cultural revitalization, the jazz scene in France was growing exponentially.
The music and spirit of African-American jazz musicians swept across the Atlantic, finding solace in Paris’s smoky clubs and intimate cellars.
Le Caveau de la Huchette emerged as one of these sanctuaries, welcoming the likes of Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.
These gifted musicians effortlessly made the 500-year-old arched ceiling of Le Caveau de la Huchette come alive with the vibrant melodies of jazz.
African-American servicemen, who had experienced greater tolerance and acceptance while stationed in France during both World Wars, frequented the lively banks of the Seine in search of the familiar sounds of home.
Le Caveau de la Huchette served as a meeting point for these men and the African-American artists who found inspiration in Paris.
Within its walls, new friendships and collaborations flourished, enriching both the American expatriate community and the emerging jazz culture in Paris.
Unlike the states, this was also where artists could perform in front of everyone, simultaneously refusing to showcase their talents to segregated audiences back home.
4. Café de Flore
📍172 Bd Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris, France
If you spend any time in Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood you’ll soon find the charming Café de Flore.
Established in the late 19th century, this café has since been a haven for artists, writers, and philosophers seeking inspiration or a picturesque location for their spirited conversations.
The crimson velvet seats, inviting patio, and old-world charm of the antique mirrors entice expatriates, tourists, and the Parisian elite alike.
Amidst the regular melange of patrons, Café de Flore gained a special place in the hearts of African-American artists and thinkers who would come to leave an indelible mark not only on the storied history of Café de Flore but also on greater Paris and the world beyond.
One such soul that found a home in the bustling café was Richard Wright, the acclaimed author of “Native Son” and “Black Boy.” The visionary author frequented the café, often accompanied by friends like fellow African-American writer, James Baldwin, and the renowned French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.
The exchange of ideas and the fierce intellectual debates that unfolded under the dim glow of Café de Flore’s art deco chandeliers nurtured an environment championing diversity of thought.
Within the confines of this Parisian institution, Baldwin also cultivated his unique literary voice, unshackled by the chains of prejudice he had faced in America.
Baldwin’s riveting narrative masterfully communicated the profound social and psychological impact of racial inequality, while simultaneously exploring the intricacies of the queer experience as a Black man.
It’s here he wrote his first novel Notes of a Native Son.
I personally sat here for almost 3 hours, people-watching, journaling, enjoying good wine and most importantly reminiscing on the history of those who sat here before me.
5. Jardin du Luxembourg
Another beautiful place to discover African-American history in Paris is the serene Jardin du Luxembourg.
The majestic trees, lush lawns, and mesmerizing fountains intertwine to create a tranquil oasis away from the city’s constant energy.
This centuries-old garden, adjacent to the Luxembourg Palace, has captivated poets, artists, and dreamers who found solace under its leafy canopy.
The beauty of Jardin du Luxembourg beckoned African-American expats, providing the perfect backdrop for reflection, inspiration, and a sense of belonging.
Notable African-American writer Chester Himes was among the individuals drawn to the lush greenery and peaceful atmosphere of the garden.
In the quiet corners of the park, he sought refuge, pen in hand, to pen some of his most poignant and introspective pieces and work.
Poet Eloise Bibb Thompson, another luminary of the African-American expatriate community, also discovered her own haven in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Amidst the harmonious symphony of rustling leaves and graceful water fountains, she nurtured her poetic prowess, documenting the triumphs of African-American identity, even in the face of hardships with dozens of poems and several plays.
This verdant oasis, however, offered more than just an idyllic backdrop for inspiration and contemplation. It served as a common ground where the members of the African-American diaspora could gather and bond.
They formed friendships, shared experiences, and wove together a vibrant tapestry of cultural exchange, coloring the park with their ideas, laughter, and camaraderie.
Today, as people from all walks of life continue to be drawn to this serene sanctuary, an air of reverence for the exceptional artists, writers, and musicians that rose from the African-American community lingers over the gardens.
6. Musée du Quai Branly
📍37 Quai Jacques Chirac, 75007 Paris, France
Near the Eiffel Tower, you’ll also find the Musée du Quai Branly.
Officially opened to the public in 2006, the museum stands as a world-renowned hub for non-European arts and culture.
The innovative architecture and beautifully maintained green spaces of the museum bleeds a vibrancy of artifacts and masterpieces inside, breathing life into the remarkable tales of civilizations from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and indigenous Americas.
Unique among its vast collection of over 300,000 objects is the museum’s assortment of African artwork, preserved with utmost care and reverence.
These pieces serve as alluring ambassadors from the past and present, reflecting the depths and nuances of African cultures.
They also echo a timeless legacy that has played a pivotal role in shaping and inspiring African-American identities.
For the African-American community in Paris, the Musée du Quai Branly provided them with a material connection to their African heritage and a deeper understanding of their roots.
The cultural capital that African-American expatriates gained at the Musée du Quai Branly resonates in the museum itself, including work from Billie Holiday, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and Lois Mailou Jones on showcase.
7. The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
📍15 Av. Montaigne, 75008 Paris, France
When you reach majestic boulevard of Avenue Montaigne, it’ll be time to discover Black American history at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
This historic theater, with its white limestone façade and gleaming gold leaf detailing, has provided a dazzling stage for operas, ballets, concerts, and plays since its inauguration in 1913.
Throughout the theater’s rich history, its stage has come to life through the talents of world-renowned artists, performers, and musicians, including exceptional African-American artists seeking to share their formidable talents with the Parisian public.
The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées became a resounding symbol of hope and acceptance for African-American performers during a time when racial prejudice in the United States was widespread.
One fateful evening in 1958, jazz saxophone legend Sidney Bechet, whose illustrious career included collaborations with a multitude of fellow jazz giants, took to the stage at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Parisian audiences, captivated by his masterful musicianship and improvisational skills, were left spellbound. The saxophone notes, entwined with the palatial stage’s grandeur, soared through the theater like a torrent, rushing towards the domed ceiling and into the hearts of the audience.
Josephine Baker’s performances at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées were also groundbreaking. Dressed in tantalizing costumes, she captivated Parisian audiences with her audacious dances that were a compelling blend of American jazz and African rhythms. Baker’s charismatic presence, exotic routines, and vivacious spirit quickly made her a sensation.
Her famous “Danse Sauvage,” where she danced wearing little more than a string of bananas, set the theater on fire and instantly catapulted her to fame. Her thrilling performances became the talk of Paris, turning the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées into a mecca for Parisians eager to witness her audacious talent live on stage.
At Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Josephine Baker didn’t just break racial barriers, she shattered them. And her impact on Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Paris was profound.
Subsequent years would witness the triumphs of other African-American icons at The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, such as renowned dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey.
Ailey’s groundbreaking dance company illuminated the stage, weaving together the beauty and strength of contemporary dance with the intensity and passion of African-American culture, taking Paris by storm.
To visit you can either admire from the outside or time your trip to align with one of their shows.
📍Pl. du Panthéon, 75005 Paris, France
The Panthéon, a neoclassical monument nestled in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, has long stood as a testament to the nation’s great figures and central events, with the final resting places of writers, philosophers, and leaders housed under its grand dome.
In 2021, a historic decision was made to honor the legacy of African-American performer and activist, Josephine Baker.
The French government announced that Baker would be interred in the Panthéon in Paris, making her the first African-American woman to receive such an honor.
This recognition places her alongside other revered figures in French history who have significantly contributed to the nation’s identity and values, a testament to her extraordinary impact on the city.
Not only is the Panthéon a beautiful place to add to your Paris itinerary, but it’s well worth visiting to see Josephine Baker’s tomb and pay respects.
9. Sainte-Geneviève Library
📍 10 Pl. du Panthéon, 75005 Paris, France
Among Paris’s architectural marvels, the Sainte-Geneviève Library stands as a beacon of intellectual freedom.
With its vast collection of texts from a galaxy of disciplines, the library welcomed thinkers, scholars, and writers of all races and cultures to delve into the wisdom of the ages.
Whispers of ideas floated around, as students, intellectuals, and artists sought solace in the enlightening corners of this sanctuary, including African-American expats.
James Baldwin, the celebrated African-American writer and social critic, was one such intellect who found home in the Sainte-Geneviève Library.
Baldwin was magnetized toward the infinite knowledge the library held and the intellectual freedom it provided. As such, these hallowed halls became his solace and his strength, a place where he could immerse himself in the past and the present, weaving them together to create a narrative for the future.
In the silence of the reading rooms, Baldwin would often contemplate the socio-political context of his time, delving into hours of reading melded with writing about his personal experiences.
Gradually, the Sainte-Geneviève Library became more than just a repository of texts to the African-American community in Paris, it became another place they could find community in the city.
10. Hotel Louisiane (La Louisiane)
📍60 Rue de Seine, 75006 Paris, France
For somewhere to spend the night like an African-American in Paris you’ll want to book a stay at La Louisiane.
Embraced by a wave of jazz and an air of creativity, its modest façade concealed a secret world — a world that welcomed artists, dreamers, and wanderers seeking refuge from the vicissitudes of life.
As dusk descended and the flâneurs retreated, the night hummed with euphoric melodies from smoky jazz clubs, seducing the African-American expatriates who had found themselves on Parisian shores.
These men and women, unshackled from the cruel chains of segregation, experienced a newfound freedom in the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Hotel Louisiane, with its inviting warmth and rich history of patronage to the arts, became their home away from home.
The legendary jazz musician, Miles Davis, found solace at Hotel Louisiane, filling its rooms with his impassioned tunes. Often joined in harmony by fellow musicians, these performances morphed into impromptu jazz concerts radiating through the hotel’s walls.
The famed writer, James Baldwin, also sought refuge at Hotel Louisiane, as Paris, and became a sanctuary, of sorts.
Other Places to Discover African-American History in Paris
📍The Cafe Tournon – Where James Baldwin would meet his friends and catch up on his book of the moment
📍La Coupole – One of Josephine Baker’s favorite restaurants
📍La Cafe de la Regence – a regular spot for American writers and authors during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance
📍5, Rue Christine: James Baldwin’s first home in Paris and where he wrote the first drafts of his book “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
📍Le Select and La Coupole: These literary cafés in Montparnasse often hosted African-American authors, such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
📍Les Deux Magots Café: Another famous café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés where writers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin often spent time writing.
📍Leonardo da Vinci Square: Although he’s not American You’ll find a statue of Alexandre Dumas, an author of African descent who wrote “The Three Musketeers,” which shows the French acknowledgment of his important contribution to French literature.
📍 Hotel Le Bristol: This is where James Baldwin completed his novel “Another Country.”
📍 New Morning Club: One of Paris’ famous jazz venues, frequented by African-American musicians.
📍 Léon Blum Square: A statue here commemorates African-American Eugene Bullard, the first African-American fighter pilot.
📍 Elysée Montmarte: A famous Parisian concert venue where jazz and blues musicians, including many African-American performers, have played.
Map of the Best Places to Discover African-American History in Paris
African-American History in Paris FAQ
Reading James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son in the Jardins du Luxembourg
➡️ Wasn’t there racism in Paris during the Jim Crow Era too?
Yes, it’s important to acknowledge that racism did exist in Paris during the Jim Crow era; however, its manifestation was quite different from what was experienced in the United States during that period.
In the United States, the institutionalized system of segregation known as Jim Crow left a profound mark on the social, cultural, and political facets of society. Very blatantly portraying African Americans as inferior.
By contrast, Paris during the same era provided a strikingly diverse setting. However, it would be misleading to assume that Paris was entirely devoid of racism during this period (and in the present day).
The difference lies in the fact that racism in France was often more subtle and diffuse, lacking the legal and systematic segregation seen in the United States.
In short, while racism did exist in Paris during the Jim Crow era, the city offered significantly more racial tolerance and opportunities for African Americans than their homeland at the time.
➡️ Why did Black artists go to Paris?
Many African-American artists migrated to Paris, especially during and after the 1920s, seeking the freedom to express their artistic abilities and cultural identities.
In the United States, during the early 20th century, racial segregation and discriminatory practices often suppressed the creative expressions of African-American artists.
Their contributions and accomplishments went largely unnoticed, with few opportunities, and almost non-existent representation.
Paris, on the other hand, provided a contrasting atmosphere where African-American artists could express themselves freely. The city was an artistic hub with a rich history of African-American presence, significantly influenced by the involvement of the United States in World War I.
➡️ What neighbourhood/area did most African-Americans live in Paris?
Montmartre and The Latin Quarter! If you’re going to visit any neighbourhood in Paris make sure it’s these two.
Thanks for reading my African-American History in Paris Guide. If you enjoyed it, let me know on Instagram!
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