When it became clear that France was in the midst of a developing pandemic provoked by the airborne SARS-CoV-2 virus, President Emmanuel Macron decreed a nationwide lockdown. The pronouncement mandated the shuttering of restaurants and bars, the closure of parks and gardens, and the suppression of public group activities. As Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Wells International Foundation (WIF) and Co-founder of the Paris-based tour company, Entrée to Black Paris (ETBP), this was devastating news for me!
Group walking tours are ETBP’s lifeblood.
Since 1999, the company has been providing tours to hundreds of independent travelers, private groups, and study abroad students who travel to Paris to learn about the history and culture of African Americans and the larger African diaspora there.
We had to suspend all tours, including our popular “Black History in and around the Luxembourg Garden” walk, which we offered three times a week. This 90-minute tour recounts the history of African Americans such as writer Richard Wright, who lived in the neighborhood and frequented the garden, and artist Loïs Mailou Jones, who often painted there. It also covers the history of several French luminaries of African descent, including Alexandre Dumas, whose play Christine à Fontainebleau was performed at the nearby Odéon Theater.
In June 2020, when elements of the lockdown were being relaxed, I was contacted by Oliver Gee, founder of the award-winning podcast called The Earful Tower. Gee’s fans referred him to me when he asked their advice about how he could diversify the content of his show in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the global outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter.
Gee originally asked me if ETBP would be willing to donate a walking tour as a prize for the online fundraiser he envisioned for a yet undetermined organization whose work aligned with Black Lives Matter. Quickly deciding to support WIF, he proposed a fundraising campaign that included a “walk show,” during which he would accompany me on a tour through Paris while live streaming my commentary on Black history in the city via Facebook Live.
I readily accepted this offer and on a Sunday in mid-June, we met at the main gate of the Luxembourg Garden to set off for a two-hour stroll. During the walk, which was not only broadcast live but also recorded on video for later use, I provided commentary on the lives of African Americans and French people of African descent, pointing out the locations where they made history.
In the Luxembourg Garden, we visited the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, which French President Jacques Chirac installed in 2007. As we walked through Montparnasse, I related stories about several African Americans, including writer James Baldwin, who used the nearby Closerie des Lilas café as a scene for his novel Giovanni’s Room. I talked about Abstract Expressionist painter Beauford Delaney, who lived in the district in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and how French and American elementary school students connected via video conferencing through a two-year program based on his life and art.
Several days later, when I realized that the future of walking tours would be virtual (at least until the end of the pandemic), I prepared a promotional video of this walk.
During the “walk show” with Gee, viewers throughout the world posted questions to the Facebook chat and I responded in real-time. This was the first-ever live, virtual Black Paris tour! By the end of the walk, scores of Earful Tower followers in the United States, Europe, and Australia had viewed the live-streamed event. The fundraiser garnered over $11,000 for my nonprofit organization.
A few months later, Dr. Maxine Cain of STEM Atlanta Women contacted me to ask if I would be willing to share this tour with the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, an all-girls public school in Atlanta, Georgia that was seeking to launch a global consciousness project for its students. Gee and I agreed to participate in this event, for which attendance of the entire student population – 350 underserved minority students, Grades 6-12 – was mandatory.
This event was so well received that Cain quickly introduced me to two youth-oriented nonprofit organizations that also wanted to experience the tour.
The founder of one of these organizations, Dr. Nicole Steele of Diamond in the Rough in Snellville, Georgia, heard about this virtual excursion. To celebrate Christmas 2020, she decided to use the tour to create a full-fledged online experience for her underserved pre-K through Grade 12 girls and their families. This virtual trip to Paris provided participants with the opportunity to assemble in a virtual airport lounge, board a virtual Paris-bound plane, and fly to the French capital for the virtual walking tour on Black history.
This unique experience allows us to bring African diaspora history and culture in Paris to people who are unable to travel abroad because of the pandemic.
I have named the presentation the Virtual Black Paris Experience and through it, I am pleased to be able to combine my passion for sharing African diaspora history in Paris through ETBP with my enthusiasm for promoting travel abroad through WIF.
I am hopeful that Americans will be able to return to France by the end of this year or early in 2022. When the country opens again to tourism, Entrée to Black Paris will be ready to resume providing in-person tours. We offer two types of tours: private, two-hour walks for individuals, small groups, and study abroad students, and our popular 90-minute tour of the Luxembourg Garden, which is open to solo travelers and small groups.