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Paris tour delves into city's African history

Black Paris Tours shows visitors the city's long African history beyond just Josephine Baker. Founder Ricki Stevenson says her clients leave Paris with a new understanding of the city and of their own place in the world.

A group of tourists file into the lobby of the fine Art Deco concert hall the Salle Pleyel to hear tour guide Ricki Stevenson turn the landmark of Parisian culture into a landmark of the rich common history of black America and the City of Light.

"This was where, in 1934, Louis Armstrong made his first Paris performances," she said, adding that he stayed in the French capital for four years.

Facing segregation in the United States, getting to France was a relief for black American artists, musicians, political activists, soldiers and writers. After arriving in France, many would heed the advice of novelist William Wells Brown and climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe "where you are free."

Centuries-old safe haven for African-Americans

"I think you can go back as early as the 1780s when laws were enacted in France that if you had escaped slavery and came to Paris the bounty hunters could not bother you, they could not drag you back to slavery," Stevenson said.

When France ceded the Louisiana Territory, a swath of land running from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, to the United States in 1803, some 50,000 free black people who were living there elected to move to France rather than be brought back into slavery.

Even after slavery was officially abolished in the United States in 1865, black Americans kept coming. By the 1950s, the difference in the quality of life for black people in the two countries was huge.

African American immigrant Clyde Wright playing the piano in his Parisian apartment

Clyde Wright moved to Paris in the 1950s

Clyde Wright, an 84-year-old member of the Golden Gate Quartet, moved to Paris in the 50s.

France was never a racism-free paradise, he said, picking out a tune on his keyboard in his apartment just outside the city center. "You could still see it in the way some people looked at you," he said. The big difference in France, he said, was that there wasn't the institutionalized racism of the United States.

"In the States, for me it was a question of being educated," he said. "Going to the right school and getting the right education. I discovered at the age of seven that was never going to happen. However in France they're not segregated against people. Everybody goes to the same school. And I enrolled in French school."

Discovering black Paris

Black artists were also treated like the international stars they were when they came to Paris. Josephine Baker, when she returned to the United States on tour, was permitted to stay in one famous New York hotel but asked to use the servants' entrance so as not to shock the other guests.

It was a move she refused in the United States and would not have been in asked in France.

The Black Paris Tour visits the exiles' haunts and hang-outs and points out the importance of some black people in French history. People like Alexandre Dumas. Few people - in France or elsewhere - know that the author of The Three Musketeers had a black grandmother. Though when you look at his statue near the Parc Monceau it's as clear as day.

Six African-American tourists pose for a photograph on the Black Paris Tour

The Black Paris Tour shows tourists Parisian landmarks important to black culture

It is not politically correct in France to play up people's origins. Even in a positive way. But Black Paris tourist Marlene Mouanga said she appreciated the approach taken by the tour company.

"It's really shown me the significance of what it means to be black in Paris," the young American said. "How blacks have contributed to Parisian society. Before coming here it was just Paris ... the Eiffel Tower. The tour has given me a whole new perspective on it. It's been really moving."

The tour stops for lunch at a Senegalese restaurant in a poor, immigrant neighborhood near the Chateau Rouge metro station. Fruit and vegetables are for sale in a bustling street market and men flash a glimpse of watches and jewelry stuffed inside their jackets.

It's not a section of town often frequented by tourists, but Black Paris Tours calls it "Little Africa," and for some of Stevenson's clients, this is close to Africa as they've ever got.

Stevenson said the Black Paris Tour is not about pride but giving black people credit for their accomplishments.

"When you know that you're walking in the footsteps of all of these people, it changes your life," she said. "It changes your interaction. It takes you outside of that box. I've had people say 'I'll never be a minority in this world again!' We can be proud of who we are and what we've done."

The tour offers all its guests a new take on one of the world's most-visited cities. The Mona Lisa, for example, one of the treasures of the Louvre Museum. Leonardo da Vinci painted it. But, says Black Paris Tours, it only became the most famous painting in the world when Paris-loving black American Nat King Cole made it the title of his hit song.

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