Fall 2023 Issue

The Irresistible Pull of Paris

Exploring the legacy and experience of Black Americans in the City of Light after World War I

By Amy Smith Jasper '89, P '18

ROYAL RESIDENCE: At the Palace of Versailles, history came alive as the W&M group considered the opulence of past monarchs and the events leading to the French Revolution. Pictured: Carl Peoples '88, Stephanie Braxton Peoples ’91, Norman Jones ’91, Holly Guest Jones ’90, Don Pearce ’88, Leslie Pearce, Amy Smith Jasper ’89, P ’18, Keith Jasper ’89, P ’18. Photo by Don Pearce ’88

The William & Mary Alumni Association partners with travel operators to offer Alumni Journeys — travel opportunities for W&M alumni and friends to explore destinations worldwide with expert guides. Learn more about Alumni Journeys and find upcoming trips at wmalumni.com/travel.

This past June, a group of 19 alumni, family and friends traveled to France for the Alumni Journey “Paris Featuring the African American Experience.”

In the years after World War I, many Black Americans found acceptance and opportunities in the City of Light. During this eight-day trip, the W&M tour group traced their travels, gaining insight into why they moved to Paris and how they forever influenced French culture. In Montmartre, the tour group listened to stories about the club owners and musicians who shaped Paris’ jazz fervor and learned about the contributions of key figures of the African diaspora. Along the way, they enjoyed quintessential Parisian experiences: tasting divine cuisine, listening to jazz at a local club, cruising the Seine River and exploring the art scene.

Trip participant Amy Smith Jasper ’89, P ’18 offers an inside view in the following travelogue.

From the moment I first learned about the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution in Mrs. Oney’s sixth-grade history class, I was hooked. My 11-year-old self dreamed of someday walking the streets that once hosted the likes of Voltaire, Monet, Van Gogh and so many other brilliant and creative minds. Subsequent years of studying world history and the great writer and activist James Baldwin served to widen the scope of my interest in Paris to include its longstanding relationship with Black Americans. The allure of strolling along the Seine, standing before iconic artworks and soaking in the history that unfolded in this city became an irresistible pull.

MAKING MEMORIES: Quintessential Parisian experiences included traveling to the top of the Eiffel Tower and savoring the atmosphere of outdoor cafes.
Making Memories: Quintessential Parisian experiences included traveling to the top of the Eiffel Tower and savoring the atmosphere of outdoor cafes. Pictured: Holly Guest Jones ’90, Leslie Pearce, Carl Peoples ’88, Amy Smith Jasper ’88, P ’18, Stephanie Braxton Peoples ’91, Keith Jasper ’88, P ’18, W&M Alumni Association CEO Matt Brandon '92, Don Pearce '88, Norman Jones '91. Photo: Don Pearce '88

Enter W&M Alumni Journeys: Paris Featuring the African American Experience. While my husband, Keith Jasper ’89, P ’18, didn’t share quite the same elementary school calling to this trip as I did, we both agreed it would be wonderful to visit Paris with fellow alumni and to experience the significant impact Black Americans had on the city’s history and cultural landscape. Thanks, Holly Guest Jones ’90, for the gentle nudge!

On the ride from the airport to our hotel, the city greeted us with a mixture of classic elegance and modern vibrancy: cobblestone streets, charming cafes and Haussmann-style architecture at every turn. It was a fusion of old and new, tradition and innovation. As everyone gathered for the welcome reception, it was clear that our group of 19 was a small but mighty one and the days ahead promised to be a great time.

Eiffel TowerThere’s something special about reconnecting with friends from college: the sharing of laughter and life updates, and the joy of being in each other’s company again. There’s also something special about the Tribe. Whether the members of our group were undergrads together or not, attended W&M for law school or were family and friends, our group of travelers became quickly acquainted and fun and learning ensued.

Through various tours, expert speakers and films, we learned interesting facts and details about the influx of African American artists and writers who came to Paris, beginning in the 1920s, exploring new artistic opportunities and seeking refuge from the racial discrimination in the United States. We walked the same streets, ate the same kinds of food and experienced the same spaces where Josephine Baker performed, Langston Hughes wrote, and Richard Wright and James Baldwin engaged in lively discussions and about race, identity and society. We learned of the rich history of jazz in Paris and how it began with Black soldiers during World War I. We explored how perceptions of race and culture differ in the French context compared to the United States and how the African American experience in Paris intersects with broader themes of race, identity and belonging. Thoughtful discussion and insightful commentary were an effortless part of this trip. We were engaged at every step, soaking it all in.

The trip was designed to have a balance between scheduled activities and free time, which for many of us translated into a tiring attempt to see and do as much as possible. We succeeded. A first trip to Paris would be incomplete without visiting certain landmarks. I was amazed at the countless treasures in the Louvre spanning centuries, from ancient sculptures to Renaissance masterpieces. As I gazed up at the intricate carvings and soaring arches of the Notre Dame Cathedral, I was in awe of its Gothic magnificence, despite its scars and scaffolding from the 2019 fire. Viewing masterpieces by Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir at the Musée d’Orsay was a surreal moment, reminding me of the power of brushstrokes and colors to convey emotions and stories. The Eiffel Tower has a magical presence and our trip to the top offered panoramic views that encapsulate the essence of the City of Light.

TOGETHER IN PARIS: Amy Smith Jasper ’89, P ’18 and her husband, Keith Jasper ’89, P ’18.
Together in Paris: Amy Smith Jasper ’89, P ’18 and her husband, Keith Jasper ’89, P ’18. Photo: Don Pearce ’88

Perhaps the star of the trip for me was our tour of the Palace of Versailles. As we explored the various chambers and apartments, it was as if the history I had studied long ago had come alive around me. Each magnificent room told a story of the opulent daily life of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, while affirming the significance of the people’s revolt against the wealth and privilege of the monarchy. As I wandered through the palace and the meticulously designed gardens, it was not only a walk through history but also a testament to the power of education and the impact of firsthand experiences.

We ticked many other boxes on the famous sites list, including the Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe, Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur, and a Seine River cruise. Of course haute couture and chic local boutiques were at every turn, so shopping was a must. One learns very quickly that what is equally important when visiting Paris is savoring the atmosphere, architecture and local way of life, as well exploring the city’s hidden gems and creating memories. One of my favorite moments of the trip was after an immersive tour through the collection of Indigenous art and cultural artifacts at the Musée du Quai Branly. Our bodies and minds in need of rest, a few of us wandered through the tranquil gardens to the museum café. There we found shade, cold beverages, a view of the Eiffel Tower, reflection, a collective exhale and the gratitude of taking it all in with old friends. Organic moments such as this and meals full of laughter and exploration (escargot, I’m talking about you), the running jokes throughout the week, navigating the Metro and the bonding search for cool air were priceless.

This alumni trip was not just a vacation, it was a journey through time and art. It was experiencing the city’s ability to seamlessly blend its historical past with its vibrant present. It gave me a nuanced understanding of the historical and cultural significance of the Black expat community within the lively tapestry of Paris.

As I boarded the flight back home, I carried with me a renewed appreciation for the power of human imagination and the transformative potential of art and culture. The city that had captured my heart since my sixth-grade history class had not only met my expectations but exceeded them in ways I could never have imagined. It was a privilege to have this experience with our Tribe family.