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Tour guide connects Paris and black America

John Laurenson Jul 10, 2012

Tour guide connects Paris and black America

John Laurenson Jul 10, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: On the foreign exchange markets, the euro tumbled to a new two-year low against the dollar today. A sign, one might fairly guess, of rising worries about the future of the single currency. Look at it another way, though, and there’s a decent upside, depending on where you come from.

A cheaper currency means Europe’s a better deal for tourists. Paris is expecting a record number of visitors this year, some of whom will see more than just the Eiffel Tower. African Americans in Paris are taking visitors to see landmarks of black America’s long love affair with that city.

John Laurenson tagged along.

Tour guide: In 1934, this would this would be where Louis Armstrong made his first Paris performances.

John Laurenson: The Black Paris Tour stops off at the Salle Pleyel concert hall. Louis Armstrong wasn’t just breezing through. He stayed four years in this city.

Tour director Ricki Stevenson, a Californian who moved here 15 years ago, says it’s part of a little-known connection between Paris and black America that stretches back as far as the 18th century.

Ricki Stevenson: There were laws were enacted in France that if you had escaped slavery and came to Paris, then bounty hunters could not bother you, they could not drag you back to slavery.

Fifty thousand black Americans moved to France in those years and kept coming after abolition and right through the Jim Crow years.

Josephine Baker recording: J’ai deux amours — mon pays et Paris.

‘I have two loves,’ sang longtime Paris resident Josephine Baker, ‘my country and Paris.’ But going back to her country was tough for artists like her — no mingling with the audience, not allowed to stay in hotels or told to use the servants’ entrance. But in Paris, they could do what the first black American novelist William Wells Brown told them to do: Climb up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, ‘where you are free.’ 

Stevenson: This is the monument to the most prolific writer in French history.

The statue of Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Three Musketeers” and 160 other books. His grandmother was black, which you can see clearly from the statue. It is not politically correct in France to play up people’s origins. Even in a positive way, but Black Paris Tourist Marlene Mouanga says this approach reveals a new side to the city. 

Marlene Mouanga: It’s really shown me the significance of what it means to be black in Paris. How the blacks have contributed to Parisian society. Before coming here, it was just Paris, the Eiffel Tower. Today’s tour has given me a whole new perspective on it. It’s been really moving actually.

The tour stops for lunch at a Senegalese restaurant in a poor immigrant neighborhood Stevenson calls ‘Little Africa.’ A big contrast with other places on the tour like Michael Jackson’s favorite Parisian hotel, where the tour makes a pit stop. It’s a fun tour, fun and informative, and, says Ricki Stevenson, business is thriving with a little help from an internet travel site.

Stevenson: About four months ago, Black Paris Tours got listed on TripAdvisor. The best thing that ever happened! And it was funny because it came from my guests, because I’m not into all that stuff! And they were like you need to fill this out and do this, and I was like, ‘OK,’ and my business just went boom!

Stevenson’s now doing tours six days a week. Guests pay $140 a head for a new take on the world’s most visited city. The Mona Lisa, for example, as Black Paris Tours points out — Leonardo da Vinci may have painted it, but it took a black American to make it the most famous painting in the world.

In Paris, I’m John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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