During Black History Month each February, several renowned figures and events come to mind: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, of course; also Harriet Tubman’s work as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad; and Jackie Robinson’s debut into major league baseball. Along with many others. But another historical footnote that is part and parcel of African-American heritage occurred in Paris in the ’40s and ’50s. In that era, the city served as a refuge for those hoping to escape Jim Crow laws and the racial torment they experienced at home. Regardless of their race, they were welcomed everywhere—in hotels, restaurants, universities. One café in particular located in the 6th arrondissement is especially significant when we take a look back. Le Tournon, still going strong today as a chic wine bar and bistro, first opened for business in the 1930s. A decade or so later, the establishment became a kind of a second home for a number of big-name African-American writers, artists, and musicians. Expats gathered there to share ideas, discuss and sometimes argue over important questions of the day, and simply be themselves. If that terrace and those frescoed walls could talk…
Le Tournon, situated on a street of the same name, really took off as an African-American intellectual and artistic center in 1948 when Richard Wright moved into an apartment with his family on the nearby rue Monsieur-le-Prince. He became such a faithful client of this neighborhood café that he called it his “office” and his friends started referring to it as “Dick’s place.” The author of Native Son and Black Boy spent many hours in that small space just north of the Luxembourg Gardens chatting with friends, drinking coffee, and playing pinball. To Wright, the Tournon was the Parisian “black church” for him and his friends.
And what remarkable friends they were. For one, there was James Baldwin. “Jimmy,” as he was known, loved Paris, a city where he finally felt “free of the crutches of race.” He had received a grant to work in the French capital through the efforts of Dick Wright, but the two men clashed at times over philosophical issues in their writing. Baldwin and abstract expressionist artist Beauford Delaney patronized the Tournon but, in Delaney’s words, found the expat company there “too macho and not very friendly”—especially toward gay men like themselves. Baldwin sought out other venues including the Café de Flore, 10 minutes away, to do revisions on his first novel Go Tell It On the Mountain.
In the early 1950s a new writer joined in the African-American glory days at the Tournon: Chester Himes. Perhaps an unfamiliar name to most modern-day Americans, the Missouri native came for a one-month stay in the capital but remained in the area for the rest of his life. Himes had several publications under his belt when he arrived but wisely took the advice of a Parisian book editor at Gallimard and began writing mysteries. The author of the Harlem Detective Series, he would become known as “the father of Black American crime writing” and, as he put it, was “more famous in Paris than any black American who had ever lived.” He felt “completely free” in the city because, even though it was far from a utopia, “Here a Negro is a human being.”
But it was not just members of the African-American literary and artistic world who gathered at this Left Bank café. A small stage set up at the Tournon was where Duke Ellington and some of the guys in his band introduced jazz to Parisians. This eventually led to an unbridled passion on the part of the French for the new style of music and perhaps contributed to the positive reception of other African-Americans in the capital city. Ellington’s band members too were well aware of the lack of racism in Paris. Supposedly, at the end of a tour in 1950 many of them were reluctant to return home.
So, if you’re ever in Paris and in search of an American historical landmark, drop in at the Tournon and raise a glass to a number of our famous compatriots of the past.
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