Montmartre was a perfectly ordinary little country town before African-American soldiers arrived in Paris during the First World War. It comprised a number of windmills and a hill - the "Butte". It had remained relatively traditional because its population was almost entirely French. Montmartre had its own customs as well as its own cabarets such as Le Lapin Agile. But even before the Great War, African-Americans had already begun visiting Paris and soaking up the European lifestyle. Most of these people were artists:
« "After slavery was abolished, some Black leaders came to France to visit the land of the egalitarian principles born of the Revolution, as well as to partake of the splendor of a grandiose culture. Among these were Frederick Douglass; Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute at the height of his fame; and Mary Church Terrell. But there were also artists like Blind Tom, the pianist, and Roland Hayes the classical singer, and painters like Henry Ossawa, who settled in Paris in 1891 and died there in 1937." (Fabre, Michel)
It was from the 1920s onwards that African-Americans began to move into Montmartre. In the beginning they were a minority. But that minority grew as Montmartre welcomed more and more of these exotic émigrés. In the end, the neighborhood grew in fame as it welcomed a new society and a new culture that was not to be found anywhere else in France. It also became something of a must-see. In fact, it was a place that, if you were going to Europe, you just had to visit. It was a kind of Harlem in Paris, surrounded by attractions. Even if the number of African-Americans was quite small initially, they were quickly noticed by the French who found them, and their art, exotic.
The first African-Americans to arrive in France were soldiers and musicians who came during the First World War. Many of them wanted to stay in France, because here, they felt safe, respected and recognized for their true worth. They felt at home. After the initial wave of immigration, other African-American artists (musicians, writers, painters, dancers, singers, and politicians) decided to follow suit – it was something of a fashionable trend. If they had the means, they tried their luck in Paris, the City of Light.
In fact, it was in part thanks to these artists that Montmartre was transformed and found fame. Characters such as Langston Hugues, W.E.B. Dubois and Ada Bricktop Smith made the Harlem Renaissance possible on Montmartre's Butte. They loved it because here they could enjoy the same life as they had back in New York, but in total freedom.
"Much of the excitement in Paris was to be found in the street life of Montmartre. Any time you walked down the streets you'd run into four or five people you knew, performers, entertainers, all kinds of people who had real talent in them… you’d start to go home, and you’d never get there. There was always some singer to hear or someone who was playing. You'd run into some friends, and they were off to hear this or to do that and you just went along. It seemed like you just couldn't get home before ten or eleven in the morning." (William A. Shack, quoting Sidney Bechet)"
All these artists who moved to Paris were wonderful ambassadors for their community. Thanks to them, the French considers African-Americans elegant and fashionable.
Little by little, the French fell more and more in love with African-American art.
"The French now want colored musicians from the United States. And when those musicians came, they headed straight for Montmartre". (Shack)"
"Douglas liked Paris because he did not feel any color prejudice there. The Negro was not an object of ridicule there, he believed, possibly because blacks had often been in Paris as artists or scholars rather than as slaves." (Michel Fabre)"
The art coming out of the African-American community in Montmartre was something of a novelty for the French and they lapped it up. As for the newcomers, they were at last able to live their culture freely, because they were in a country where segregation did not exist. Also, far from having a problem with their physical appearance, the French saw Black Americans as exotic and were enthralled by them.
According to African-American history studies, black culture came from Africa. It then made its way to the United States during the time of slavery. Although African-Americans adopted France, they didn't adopt the French way of life. In fact, for the most part, they carried on pretty much as they had back home - they cooked and ate the same food as always, dressed the same way and continued playing jazz and gospel music. The French were so fascinated by the African-American lifestyle; they began copying both the way they danced and the instruments they played. For most Europeans, African-Americans were a major source of inspiration. And this was true for a great many artists. This was the case, for instance, with Pablo Picasso and the French author, Boris Vian. There was mutual respect between the two communities, even if African-Americans didn't speak very much French. The language barrier is undoubtedly the reason why the two communities existed side by side rather than together; that might have led to a few integration problems. Here is a quote from Bricktop:
"I was beginning to consider Paris my home. Light housekeeping in my apartment brought me in touch with the simple French people—shopkeepers, flower sellers, pharmacists. I liked them, and they liked me. They laughed at my French, but they did so in a warm, friendly way. I started realizing that even the simple people had elegance and chic. A showgirl could put on any sort of gown [...] and look stunning." (Ada Bricktop Smith)Little by little, the French fell more and more in love with African-American art.