- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

PARIS — Imagine being born in the United States, of African descent — and going off to discover your history in France.

Anecdotal evidence from the tourism industry suggests that more and more black Americans are traveling internationally. And from France to South Africa, tour operators are discovering that the sites that attract members of this growing market tend not to be the chateaux of long-ago French kings or the game reserves for which Africa is so famous.

Instead, the sites that bowl over black American tourists and prompt them to spend their money often relate to the history of black Americans abroad — such as the vibrant contributions of black Americans to the artistic life of Paris, or historic sites related to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Monique Wells, for example, offers different kinds of tours of Paris for Americans. Some relate to cuisine; others are corporate trips; still others involve itineraries tailored to the specific interests of the groups involved.

But, by far, the fastest-growing segment of her business — called Discover Paris — relates to the city’s rich black American heritage.

“More African Americans have been contacting us than any other kind of Americans,” said Miss Wells, an American from Texas who has lived in Paris since 1992.

Miss Wells is an expert on the city’s black heritage. She wrote a book on the subject — “Paris Reflections: Walks through African-American Paris” — which outlines six walking tours of black American historical sites.

The walks take visitors past the theater where Josephine Baker debuted in 1925 in La Revue Negre, as well as down the Champs-Elysees, where Miss Baker used to walk her pet cheetah.

They include sites related to the authors Richard Wright, who lived here, and James Baldwin, who led a march on the U.S. Embassy here in support of Martin Luther King’s 1963 march on Washington.

There are sites related to the musicians Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, not to mention Augusta, Ga.-born Jessye Norman, who presided over the Bastille Day ceremony marking the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. A black American architect named David Harmon worked on the renovation of the Louvre, designing the rooms housing Islamic art and Oriental antiquities.

Most black American tourists are “interested in knowing a little bit about our history,” said Miss Wells. “Usually, they’re overwhelmed, because there’s so much here, and people know so little.”

Nearly 6,000 miles to the south, in Cape Town, South Africa, the Thebe Tourism Group also sees growing potential in the black American market.

The group — which offers a variety of tours, from safaris to conventions to corporate-incentive programs — plans this year to introduce tours designed for black Americans.

“The African-American market for us represents a fairly obvious foray into a market, which really hasn’t been tapped into at this point in time,” said Jan van Huyssteen, the managing director.

Thebe Tourism Group, a black-controlled company, is working with two black-owned American companies. “They tell me there are pockets of African-Americans who do travel extensively and who have expressed some interest — a serious interest — in going back and examining their roots in Africa,” Mr. Van Huyssteen said.

The tours will focus on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, on some museums dedicated to the anti-apartheid struggle, as well as on Soweto, the township outside Johannesburg that was the site of much ferment against white-minority rule.

Among other points of interest, Soweto boasts the only street in the world with the houses of two Nobel Peace Prize winners — Mr. Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The group is considering offering a tour that would include Goree Island, the island in Senegal that was the last sight of Africa seen by millions of black people who were sold into slavery and shipped to the Americas.

The group plans to advertise its new tours on black-oriented radio stations in the United States. But the news may spread another way, as well — through word of mouth.

When Cynthia Rollins, a New Yorker, made her first trip to Europe last summer, she went on one of the Discover Paris tours. She actually enjoyed the Mona Lisa and the Picasso collection in the Louvre.

But her trip had another purpose.

“The reason why I wanted to go was, I wanted to visit the black side of Paris, to see the contributions black Americans had made to Paris,” said Miss Rollins, who works at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

But she had not imagined that the black side of Paris would be so large and so impressive.

“I found it fascinating,” she said. “I was overwhelmed.” She’s thinking of going back.

And when she tells her friends about all the ways that black Americans have contributed to Paris, their jaws drop.

“They say, ‘I can’t believe this,’” said Miss Rollins.

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