Six lesser-known sites that tell the story of Paris’ black history

There's a lot more to Paris landmarks that the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe - here tour group Entrée to Black Paris share some of the sites that present a less well-known aspect of the capital's history.

Six lesser-known sites that tell the story of Paris' black history
The Carpeaux fountain in Paris. All photos: Entree to Black Paris

Black history in Paris is broad and deep, and visitors to the city who take the time to explore sites that recall this history will leave the French capital with a deeper appreciation of the impact of African diaspora history and culture on the city.

So here are six little-known sites that that extend from the Luxembourg Garden to the Bobino Theatre in Montparnasse.  You should be able to walk the whole itinerary in about an hour.

Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery

Le Cri, L’Ecrit is a large bronze sculpture in the shape of a chain that emerges from the ground on the eastern side of the Luxembourg Garden. 

Installed on May 10th, 2007 in the presence of outgoing president Jacques Chirac and incoming president Nicolas Sarkozy, it marks the 10th of May as the National Day for the Commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery.  A stele honouring the memory of France’s formerly enslaved people stands nearby.

Memorial to Gaston Monnerville

A memorial to Gaston Monnerville, a native of French Guiana, stands just outside the Observatory Gate on the south side of the garden. 

Born in 1858 in Cayenne, Monnerville obtained a law degree at the University of Toulouse.  He rose to prominence first as an attorney and then as a politician.  During his 21+ year tenure as President of the French Senate, he was the second-highest elected official of the French Republic.

The Carpeaux Fountain

Designed by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, the Fontaine de l’Observatoire stands at the southern end of the Jardin des Grands-Explorateurs. 

It presents four women supporting a celestial sphere, with each woman symbolising a continent of the world:  Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America.  The right ankle of the African woman is shackled, and, intriguingly, the North American woman is portrayed stepping on the end of the chain. 

READ ALSO ‘Forgotten treasure’ – the Paris neighbourhood that tourists rarely see

Closerie des Lilas

Standing near the Carpeaux Fountain, the Closerie des Lilas is famous for having been frequented by writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald and artists such as Picasso and Cézanne. 

African-American writer James Baldwin used the restaurant as a setting for his novel Giovanni’s Room, where his protagonist, David, goes to have a drink when he learns that his fiancée is about to return to Paris. 

Jean Zay Elementary School

In 2018-2019, students from Jean Zay Elementary School engaged in a series of monthly video conferences with students from Nature’s Way Montessori School in Knoxville, Tennessee around the life and art of African-American expatriate Beauford Delaney. 

Delaney, who was born in Knoxville in 1901, moved to Paris in 1953 and lived in the vicinity of the Jean Zay School during the 1960s and 1970s.  The French government and the Centre Pompidou own several of his works.

Bobino Theatre

It was here that African-American music-hall star Josephine Baker gave her last performance in 1975. 

Baker was enjoying a successful comeback when she suffered a stroke in her bed after a show.  She was taken to the nearby hospital Pitié-Salpétière, where she died the following day. 

Her funeral procession passed in front of the Bobino before making its way to the Madeleine church, where the funeral was held.

READ ALSO Five of the best off-the-beaten track museums in Paris   

These are just some of the sites on travel company Entrée to Black Paris’s walking tour – a tour that has now developed into a live virtual tour that can be enjoyed online while Covid-related health and travel restrictions are in place.

You can find out more HERE or by emailing [email protected]

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.