In honor of Black History Month, and tying together two of my historical interests, I wanted to dedicate a blog post to how Paris played host to a multitude of key African-American voices during the Black Broadway/Harlem Renaissance era. During WWI, African-American soldiers who were posted to or came through France experienced a level of acceptance that felt like a breath of fresh air compared to the prejudice they experienced in America. While France had its own checkered past when it came to colonialism, African-Americans were seen as liberators and the French were critical of America’s treatment of its black citizens. James Reese Europe (yes, that was his last name), who had studied music in DC before moving to New York and founding the Clef Club, joined the war effort as part of New York's National Guard. He was assigned to the 369th Division, which become known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He formed a band out of the division, which toured France after the war ended, essentially introducing black music to the French.
After the war was over, black soldiers returned to a country that still treated them as second-class citizens, still embraced Jim Crow laws, and still created social and legal barriers to equality. Some soldiers chose to stay in France and try their luck there, others returned to the US but then went back to France, remembering how they encountered fewer barriers based on their skin color. Paris specifically would play host to a multitude of African-American writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and musicians. Neighborhoods such as Montmartre, the Left Bank, and Montparnasse had active and vibrant African-American communities. Several of these figures have a DC connection too. Let’s talk about it.
Jazz was introduced to Paris during WWI by the aforementioned James Europe, during their tour in which they visited ravaged villages, camps, and of course, Paris. The French fell in love with the music, and a robust jazz scene took hold in the Montmartre neighborhood. If you were an African-American who wanted to move to Paris in the 1920s, the best way in was to be a musician. The French picked up the music themselves, but for a long time African-American musicians were preferred. Though I have yet to find jazz performers from DC who established themselves in Paris, Duke Ellington was already famous and beloved by the city by the time he visited there. He would go on to have a long and close relationship with the city. His first trip to Paris was in 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression. Work was scarce in America, and in 1932 his manager Irving Mills, booked him and his band on a European tour that would include England, France, and Holland. The Duke was delighted at the warm welcome he received from French audiences, with the band selling out shows in the major theaters of the city like Salle Pleyel (whereas most jazz was still performed in the small dingy clubs of Montmartre). He would return to Paris dozens of times over the course of multiple decades. He recorded “The Great Paris Concert” album in 1963 which included tracks from multiple recorded sessions, and published it a decade later.
Before he was a busboy poet at DC’s Wardman Park Hotel, Langston Hughes worked as a busboy at a Paris nightclub. In his novel The Big Sea, Hughes chronicles his journey working on a freighter as it crossed the Atlantic from New York to the shores of Africa, and to Europe. He disembarked in France and made his way to the City of Light, hearing about the jazz scene that had established itself in Montmartre. He would work as first a bouncer and then a busboy at le Grand Duc, which hosted multiple African American singers including Bricktop and Florence Embry. He describes the scene, “….when all the other clubs were closed, the best of the musicians and entertainers from various other smart places would often drop into the Grand Duc, and there would be a jam session until seven or eight in the morning….the cream of the Negro musicians then in France….would weave out music that would almost make your heart stand still at dawn in a Paris night club in the rue Pigalle…”(pg. 161-162).
While in Paris, Hughes also encountered DC-based Alain Locke, writer of “The New Negro Movement,” and Rayford Logan, who would go on to teach history at Howard University. Alain Locke was an early supporter of Langston’s work, having read it in Crisis magazine. Locke would help Langston make some connections in the art and writers’ scene in Paris as well. Eventually Hughes left Paris to travel in Italy and Spain, and finally he landed back in Harlem with a quarter in his pocket. He soon after moved to Washington to join his Mother and brother, where they had extended family. There he would be employed at Robert Pendleton’s printshop, as well as a Laundromat, and work again as a busboy at the Wardman Park hotel. There he would be discovered by the larger public as a poet. But back to Paris…
Another DC writer and educator, Jesse Redmon Fauset, lived in Paris for several months in 1924 and 1925. Several of her novels feature scenes of African Americans in Paris, including Plum Bun, which she wrote while living there. She then received her MA in French from the University of Pennsylvania. Jesse Fauset is one of the people that Langston Hughes credits with “midwifing” the black renaissance movement into being, as she was not only a writer herself, but a writing critic.
Gwendolyn Bennet was poet and professor of art at Howard University who had her poems published in Crisis and Opportunity magazines. She lived in DC as a child, and the then later after she graduated college and received her professorship at Howard. While in DC she lived at 1454 T Street NW before moving to New York where she took her place in the Harlem Renaissance. She then moved to Paris in 1925 after receiving a $1,000 fellowship from sorority Sigma Alpha Theta. She lived there for almost a year, and journaled her experiences. She met Gertrude Stein and members of that writer’s circle, and circulated amongst other African American writers and musicians in the city that she saw as nurturing black talents. She saw Josephine Baker perform at the Revue Negre, met bass singer Paul Robeson, and was romantically involved with violinist Louis Jones, who would go on to be a professor at Howard as well. After she returned from abroad, Gwendolyn Bennet moved back to New York where she remained until she passed in 1981. The home that she lived in on T Street is now featured on the Harlem Renaissance in DC tour.
Artist Henry Ossawa Tanner was considered one of the most impactful artistic minds of the African Americans who lived in Paris during the Harlem Renaissance period. He moved to France early in his artistic career, because “in Paris no one regards me curiously. I am simply M[onsieur] Tanner, an American artist. Nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forebears,” as he recounted in a magazine interview. He worked in a studio on Boulevard St. Jacques and he was one of the first black artists to reach international fame. His paintings typically depicted religious or biblical scenes, including his Resurrection of Lazarus, which now hangs in the Louvre. While he himself never actually lived in Washington, DC, a group of artists in DC started the Tanner Art League in 1922. The League was a group of local black DC artists who formed to promote their work and hold exhibitions.
The “Negritude” movement in Paris that complemented the Harlem Renaissance in America suffered during the economic crash, but persisted until World War II. Then the community retreated during the Nazi occupation because of their destructive racist attitudes towards Blacks, Jews, and other minorities. Josephine Baker famously joined the Resistance movement during WWII, using her access as a celebrity to collect intelligence on Nazi plans. After the war, Black writers and artists remained in Paris as a distinct community throughout the 20th Century. They would be vocal about the marches and backlash they observed as the Civil Rights Movement unfolded in America from their position across the Atlantic, and mourn the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jazz would give way to soul, funk, and eventually hip hop, which would also be embraced by African-French and African immigrants. France has changed throughout the years, and racist attitudes towards a multitude of groups (See: Algerian Wars) still persist. However, it's important to remember that 100 years ago that France played host to a group of people who were fleeing racism and oppression in a country that professed democratic values. Paris now calls itself the jazz capital of the world (which I don't agree with, that title is held by New Orleans), and there are still many clubs there that keep the tradition alive. Let us not forget the African-Americans from DC, New York and elsewhere for bringing it to them in the first place. Happy Black History Month!
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