First, I apologize for the length of this post, and second, I apologize for my frankly lazy mostly Wikipedia-citations, because they’re a lot more accessible, and hence more useful, than tracking down the original book citations that absolutely no one on Tumblr would hunt down anyway, so you’d still have to take my word for their reliability.
This is a selection of a few notable black people who spent time in France between the late 18th and late 19th centuries. Some were born there, some moved there, some were educated there, and some lived there temporarily as expats. Their stories also make clear that that there were other black people in France at the time—members of regiments recruited from Haiti and Africa during the French Revolution [x], students at the Sorbonne in the 1830s [x], abolitionist literary and political circles [x], and amongst the bourgeoisie, as well as servants and other lower-class workers. Continental France was not isolated in a bubble from its colonies—people moved back and forth between them, particularly those with education and money, neither of which was limited to white people at this point in time. It was not uncommon for well-off black and mixed race colonials to be educated in France, particularly in the 19th century.
Was France an anti-racist paradise? No. Many of the people here encountered racism in multiple forms, and “white-passing” or almost-passing Créole women in particular were often exoticized and stereotyped, and this is also the same period when Khoikhoi woman Saartjie Baartman was exhibited in Paris as a sideshow attraction. Even successful and respected multiracial authors such as Alexandre Dumas encountered prejudice. But there were black and mixed race people living in France in this period and earlier, in notable numbers. This is well-documented historical fact. For each of these people, I found several more people with names and documented stories, but no accompanying portraits—soldiers, politicians, and abolitionists in particular, as France in this period had thriving abolition societies.
And for each of them, how many ordinary black people in France—shopkeepers and lady’s maids and stonemasons and bankers—were not recorded in historical records? 19th century fiction authors such as Victor Hugo occasionally mentioned the race of minor characters in Parisian settings as “black” or “créole” without further elaboration, suggesting that the presence of black and mixed race people in Paris was not worth great remark. [x]
(Please note that this post uses 19th century racial terms which may or may not still be in use today, such as “octoroon” and “mulatto.” These are the terms by which the people would have been identified in their time period. Some of the historical sources quoted also use the term “Negro.” I do not personally endorse throwing these terms around sans historical context.)
1. Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George (December 25, 1745 – June 10, 1799), was a noted composer, violinist, and conductor, and prior to the French Revolution, he was also known as a swordsman and equestrian. Originally from Guadelupe, he was born to white French plantation owner Georges Boulogne de Saint-George and a former slave, Nanon. In 1749, the family moved to Paris, where Joseph quickly excelled at physical and musical arts. Although selected for appointment as the director of the Royal Opera of Louis XVI, he was refused when three Parisian singers petitioned the Queen, refusing to sing under the direction of “a mulatto.” Although a noble and a member of the court of Versailles, during the French Revolution, Boulogne commanded a regiment of one thousand “colored” volunteers, but was denounced and imprisoned due to his aristocratic background. He adjusted poorly to life as a commoner and died in 1799, age 54. The portrait is by William Ward (1788), after an earlier painting by Mather Brown. [x]
2. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (March 25, 1762 – February 26, 1806) was the highest-ranking person of color of all time in a continental European army. He was born in Saint-Domingue, Haiti, to a white French father and a black mother; because slavery was illegal in continental France, he became free by default when his father brought him to France in 1776 (his father sold Thomas-Alexandre’s three siblings in Haiti). Thomas-Alexandre grew up in a suburb of Paris, where he received the education of a young nobleman. By 31, he commanded 53,000 troops as General-in-Chief of the French Army of the Alps. The painting is by Olivier Pichat and dates to the 19th century. [x]
3. Sally Hemings (c. 1773 – 1835) was an enslaved woman of mixed race owned by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. In 1784, when Jefferson moved to Paris as the American envoy to France, he took Sally and her older brother James Hemings, along with some of his other slaves. There he had James trained as a chef in French cuisine, while Sally accompanied Jefferson’s teenaged daughter, Polly. In France, slavery was illegal, so Jefferson paid Sally and James (minimal) wages. Both studied French Sally may have accompanied Jefferson’s oldest daughter Martha to formal events as a lady’s maid. Under French law, both Sally and James could have petitioned for freedom and remained in France; however, they returned to Virginia with Jefferson. As no portraits of Sally Hemings survive, the miniature portrait is of her daughter Harriet, most likely Jefferson’s daughter. [x]
4. Cyrille Bissette (July 9, 1795 – January 22, 1858) was a monarchist politician from Martinique, born to Charles Borromeo Bissette, a black man from Marin, and his free Métis wife, Bellaine Melanie Elizabeth. Due to his abolitionist views, he was banished from the French colonies for ten years by the Court of Guadelupe. After Bissette moved to Paris, he founded the abolitionist journals la Revue des colonies and la Revue abolition[n]iste, as well as wrote a book refuting Schoelcher, Réfutation du Livre de M. V. Schœlcher sur Haïti. He was a member of the National Assembly, representing Martinique, from 1848-1851. Print by François Le Villain, 1828. [x]
5. Jeanne Duval (c.1820 – 1862) was a Haitian-born actress and dancer of mixed French and black African ancestry. In 1842, she moved to Paris, France with poet Charles Baudelaire, where she lived for 20 years. She remained in a stormy relationship with Baudelaire and inspired much of his poetry, including Le balcon, Parfum exotique, La chevelure, Sed non satiata, Le serpent qui danse, and Une charogne. Baudelaire’s friend Édouard Manet painted her in 1862, when she was already blind from the syphilis which killed both her and Baudelaire. Sketch by Charles Baudelaire c. 1850. [x]
6. Alexandre Dumas, père (July 24, 1802 – December 5, 1870) was son of Alexandre-Thomas Dumas, is probably best known as the writer of The Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo. His many historical adventure novels have been translated into over 100 languages, making him one of the most widely-read French authors of all time. Although most of his work does not touch on race, his short novel Georges (1843) addresses race and colonialism, and when insulted about his ancestry he once replied:
My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.
Dumas was a friend of Victor Hugo, and they moved in the same artistic circles. The sketch is by Achille Devéria, 1829. [x]
7. Louisy Mathieu (June 17, 1817 – 1874) was a politician from Guadelupe who served in the French National Assembly from 1848 to 1849. He was a slave before the 1848 French Revolution, which made all citizens of French colonies free; after that he was elected to the Assembly [x]. He is mentioned briefly in Victor Hugo’s memoirs [x]:
There were about fifty Representatives present that evening. The negro Representative Louisy Mathieu, in white gloves, was accompanied by the negrophile Representative Schoelcher in black gloves. People said: “O fraternity! they have exchanged hands!”
Official portrait from the French National Assembly, 1848 or 1849 (Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée nationale).
8. Pierre-Marie Pory-Papy (May 3, 1805 – January 27, 1874) was a lawyer and politician from Martinique, son of a free man of color and and a later-freed woman, Antoinette. After earning his baccalaureate in 1834 in Aix-en-Provence, France, Pory-Papy studied law in Paris; in 1835 he returned to Saint-Pierre, Martinique, to practice. During his political career, he served as a city councillor, deputy mayor, and mayor, of Saint-Pierre, and member of the National Assembly for Martinique (1848-1849 and 1871-1874). It’s unclear to me how much of this time he lived in France, but he died in Versailles. Photograph date unknown. [x]
9. Victor Séjour (1817 – 1874) was an American expatriate writer who worked in France. Born in new Orleans to a free mulatto father from Santo Domingo and Eloisa Phillippe Ferrand, a free African-American octoroon born in New Orleans, he was well-educated in a private school. At nineteen he moved to Paris to continue his education, where he met members of the Parisian literary elite, including Cyrille Bissette, whose abolitionist journal La Revue des colonies published Séjour’s short story ”Le Mulâtre" 1837. "Le Mulâtre," which heavily critiqued slavery, is believed to be the first published fiction by an African-American writer. Séjour later became a playwright. Caricature from Diogène, 1857. [x]
10. Alfred-Amédéé Dodds (February 6, 1842 – July 18, 1922) was a French general of Senegalese origin who commanded French forces during the Second Franco-Dahomean War. An octoroon and Métis, he was admired in the African Diaspora of the early 20th century despite his involvement in the destruction of one of Africa’s most powerful pre-colonial states, Dahomey (now Bénin). He died in 1922 in Paris, France. Portrait from the cover of L’Illustration, 1893. [x]
Finally, I apologize for the lack of woman in this historyspam: for various unsurprising reasons, I couldn’t find many examples of named women with extant portraits, although if you know of any I’d love to hear about them—I found way more men then I could use, so a second historyspam is a definite possibility.
h/t greencrook and voksen for suggesting Jeanne Duval