History of Racism In Provenance

Race relations in America is a history of injustices. What people were forced to be and do to have the lives they wanted was sometimes extreme but in the face of injustice, often justified.

From Ebony Magazine 1952
From Ebony Magazine 1952

Passing or Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The history of passing is long and complicated. Blacks have passed as white and whites have passed as black. The decision to pass is personal and the reasons as individual as the person making it. Two excellent nonfiction books about the different implications of passing are A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs and Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across The Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss. The seminal fiction book on the subject is Nella Larson’s Passing.

Virginia's Racial Integrity Act
Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act

The Racial Integrity Act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth and divided society into only two classifications: white and colored (essentially all other, which included numerous American Indians). It defined race by the “one-drop rule“, defining as “colored” persons with any African or Native American ancestry. It also expanded the scope of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage (anti-miscegenation law) by criminalizing all marriages between white persons and non-white persons. In 1967 the law was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in its ruling on Loving v. Virginia. (from Wikipedia)

Henry Osswa Tanner by Federick Gutekunst (Paris 1907)
Henry Osswa Tanner by Federick Gutekunst (Paris 1907)

African-Americans have lived and worked in France since the 1800s. More than 200,000 African-Americans fought in Great War, or World War I as we know it today, and it is estimated that at least 90 percent of these expatriates were from the American south. Many chose to stay in Europe to escape racism back in the United States. They soon became part of the Paris’ creative class, African-American musicians, artists, and Harlem Renaissance writers found 1920s Paris ready to embrace them with open arms. Montmartre became the center of the small community, with jazz clubs such as Le Grand Duc, Chez Florence and Bricktop’s thriving in Paris.

World War II brought much of the creativity in Paris to an abrupt halt. The Nazi invasion of Paris in June 1940 meant suppression of the “corrupt” influence of art, literature and jazz in the French capital and danger of imprisonment for African-Americans choosing to remain in the city. Most Americans, black as well as white, left Paris to return to the United States as Europe erupted into World War II.

The book Paris Noir: African-Americans in the City of Light by Tyler Stovall is a great resource and reader can find more books on African-Americans in Paris on Julia Brown’s Spirit of Black Paris Blog.

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