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African-Americans in Paris: 'It's always been about freedom for us'
Julia Browne leads an African-American history tour in Paris. Browne launched Walking the Spirit Tours in 1994
February 25th, 2013
11:49 AM ET

African-Americans in Paris: 'It's always been about freedom for us'

By Maureen Jenkins, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Think Paris, and the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées and haute couture come to mind. But the City of Light also is rich in African-American history. Keeping this history alive are tour companies that share it, up close and personal, with visitors to France.

From legendary entertainer Josephine Baker to internationally acclaimed artist Henry Ossawa Tanner to World War I's ragtime-and-jazz-playing "Harlem Hellfighters," Paris has embraced African-American culture like few other places. Because of that legendary embrace - one that black folks in the States had heard about since the 1800s - Paris loomed large in their imaginations. To many who didn't always feel welcome in their native country, the city sounded like a place where they could emotionally exhale.

"It's always been about freedom for us," says Marcus Bruce, the Benjamin E. Mays Professor of Religious Studies at Bates College and author of "Henry Ossawa Tanner: A Spiritual Biography."

Legendary Harlem-born author James Baldwin, who left for Paris in 1948, said "African-Americans discover in Paris the terms by which they can define themselves. It's the freedom to work beyond the assumptions of what we can and can't do as African-Americans. It's a different rhythm and pace. We can imagine ourselves in new ways in that space."

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