• Migration Patterns

    Moving Away Pt 2: Finding Your Interwar Ancestors

    Paris between the world wars.  Exciting.  Creative.  Cheap.  And for many Americans, a much more free place than back home.  Free of social constraints, free of sexual restrictions, and free of the oppressive racism found in the U.S. 

    In this second part of our look at African American migration to Paris during the 1920s, let’s look at how to find those Jazz Age relatives!

    While we’re focusing on the African American experience in this series, these research concepts apply to everyone with relatives living in Paris in the period.  The difficulties in hunting down French records seem to know no color boundaries.  The biggest difference is that the white experience in Paris is historically much more well documented. This can make finding key details needed for the research easier.  So sadly, some things are the same on both sides of the pond. 😐

    We have two basic places to start your search: Census Data and Directories.

    Census Data

    Census Data can be a treasure trove of information…if you can find them on the census.  If you have experience in searching the U.S. Census, strap in.  As with most things involving French bureaucracy, you are going to need patience.  But it can be very rewarding once you find them! 

    For this article, I decided I wouldn’t just give advice, but follow it so you can see it play out.  I don’t personally have any relatives in Paris at this time, so I chose to try to find the one and only Josephine Baker. 

    How to Find People on the Census

    First, a few details. The French conveniently were taking a census every 5 years in the interwar period.  For that time, there are 4 censuses available publicly:  1921, 1926, 1931, and 1936.   However, the census data for the Île-de-France Region (including Paris) is not currently indexed.  Which means we have to get creative, and, more importantly, comfy. 

    The Search

    Here are the basic steps to (hopefully) finding your ancestor on the census. 

    Part 1 – Which Records?
    1. Locate Their Address.  This is hurdle number one.  Because the census is not indexed, you are going to have to go at it geographically.  If you have more than one address, try to narrow it down to the one closest to a census year (above).  Hopefully you have an old address book, envelope, or other document with their address.  Otherwise, you can try hunting them down through a few publications (see Directories below). 
    2. Locate the Department of the address.  France is broken into Regions (basically states) and then Departments (sort of like counties).  From there we have Communes (municipalities).  The records are usually held at the Department level. Note that France has reorganized itself a few times in the last century, just like how our counties keep changing boundaries.  So once you have the city (Commune), you can find the department.  Hopefully the commune has a wikipedia page or other website that will easily give you this information and any history you may need.
    3. Find the census records.  Good ol’ FamilySearch to the rescue!  Their France wiki has extensive information.  Scroll down to the region map and click on your region.  We are focusing exclusively on the Île-de-France Region (currently in violet) or you can scroll down to the list below the map. Once on the correct page, scroll down to the Census records. 

    For Josephine, we are using her address in the department of Yvelines. Her commune is Le Vésinet, a very swanky suburb of Paris.

    Part 2 – The Database

    Congratulations!  You’ve made it to the records!  Grab a cup of caffeine for this next part.

    1. These are French records, so everything is in French of course.  Now is the time to set your browser to Translate French to English (Chrome is excellent for this).  Review any collection information and requested permissions/agreements and move to the search (rechercher) page. 
    2. For Yvelines, we have 3 fields we can fill out:  Current municipality, Old municipality (if different), and the year range.  If you aren’t sure, you can go big, such as 1920-1940.  Here we have the search page in English and French. 

    We’ll then see the search results.  Here’s where patience pays off!  The results will come back a bit differently, depending on the department.  But in general things will be broken out geographically and then alphabetically. 

    In our case, our commune–Le Vésinet–is quite small and doesn’t have any further geographic breakdowns.  We’ll dive right into the the alphabetical street names.  However, Paris for example is organized by arrondissement and then quartier and THEN by street, which will take a little extra research and map-consulting. 

    In Le Vésinet, note that each listing is named by the street that the image set starts with.  And roughly the street names are alphabetized.  The exceptions can be small little allées (alleys), cours (courtyards), and passages (same in English-handy!), which seem to mostly be organized with the larger street they grow off of. 

    Weirdly the results themselves are not alphabetized…
    Part 3 – Success

    In Josephine’s case, her address was 52 avenue Georges-Clemenceau.  When you search, drop the street type (rue, avenue, boulevard, etc.) and use the just the street name.  Don’t over think it.  Albert Joly is “A”, not J.  So Georges-Clemenceau should be in the Fontaine images.  Singing the alphabet song is optional in this process. 🙂

    You’ll scroll through, looking first at the street name, then the house numbers.  And then voila!  Hopefully you find your target!   I present to you Josephine Baker and her surprisingly large household: 

    To comply with privacy laws, only the public figures’ names are shown. See original record for complete details.

    Whew!  That was a lot, but we get a lot in return.  First, who was living with her:

    • Her manager/lover Pepito Abatino
    • Their staff of three “domestiques” or house servants, a gardener, and a concierge overseeing it all
    • A French couple labeled as “friends” (ami/e)
    • A 20-year-old woman who could be just a girl/young woman or a daughter (fille sadly means both) of someone in the household.  Either way, she worked as a stenographer for Phoscao, which made the French version of Carnation Instant Breakfast. 

    We also see where each person was born, their birth years, and occupations.

    Of course it creates a lot of questions as well.  Including who all of the non-servants are and why are they there.  But it’s a good start! 

    Villa Beau-Chêne, Josephine’s house in Le Vésinet


    While it seems that Paris didn’t have the City Directories that we know and love from this period, there are some directories to help hunt down the elusive ancestor. 

    American Chamber of Commerce in France Directory.  The Chamber published annual directories of Americans living in Paris from about 1925-1940.  The catch? They are not yet in the public domain.  Which means finding them is less than fun.  Some universities have copies in their libraries–hopefully near you!

    The full name of each is American Chamber of Commerce in France. Americans in France: A Directory + the year.  Use the WorldCat search for the year you are looking for.  Some copies are also available on Amazon, AbeBooks, and Ebay periodically.  Lastly, you can search the 1925 edition online here.  Note that you will not see anything other than indexed results.   

    Tout Paris.  If your ancestor lucked out and was part of high society, there were directories for those folks.  The Tout-Paris: Annuaire de la société parisienne annual publication lists the rich and famous.  Some are public domain and others are not.  Some are available in the Hathi Trust Digital Library and some are on Google Books

    Other Resources

    Like with the directories, due to privacy laws we are a bit hamstrung when it comes to a lot of public data.  But, as you may have seen on the FamilySearch page, there are more records available online, depending on the department and commune.  

    If your ancestor was a musician, artist, or otherwise possibly even partly famous, they may be mentioned in some of the more inclusive books or websites focused on this period.  See the first part for some resources focused on Black Paris, as well check out your local library and the internet for more options.

    Was your ancestor active in their home community? Their departure or return home may have been mentioned in the local newspaper. If they were especially noteworthy, they may have been mentioned in the New York Times or the paper of their city of departure.

    Lastly, you can hire local genealogists in France who can access the archives for data that has not yet been digitized or available for public use.  Check out the Association for Professional Genealogists (American/English with some researchers in France) or if you are feeling brave, the French union for genealogists (you’ll need google translate). 

    Apologies for yet another long one!  But I hope this helps you get started on your French Adventure! 

    Will you be hunting down any 20th century French ancestors?  Would you like to see older French records searches?  Other countries?  Or do you want me to stick with the U.S. of A?  Let me know below!  Thanks!

    In Case You Missed It: Check out Part 1, about why and how African Americans moved to Paris after World War 1!

    Image Credits
    Cover Photo:  RMS Mauritania. From Monovisions Black & White Photography Magazine
    Fun at the Bar: Pinterest Pin #277393658279631329
    All Census Images are from the ARCHIVES DÉPARTEMENTALES DES YVELINES. The Josephine Baker Census Record is in the 1931 Le Vésinet Census, Fontaine Image Set, Image 18/page 168.
    Villa Beau-Chêne: credits unknown. From the Société d’histoire du Vésinet
    Tout Paris: From the 1925 Edition, available at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. Public Domain.

  • Migration Patterns

    Moving Away: Migration to France Between the World Wars

    Genealogy is generally the search for ancestors who moved to where we are now. But some family members emigrated away to other countries instead.  One example of this “reverse” migration was the flow of Black Americans to France between WWI and WWII.  In this first part of a two-part series, we’ll explore the history of this extraordinary event.

    Members of 369th–“The Harlem Hellfighters”.
    Note the Croix de Guerre medals. 🙂
    See the full photo for the names of soldiers

    The chaos and change of war don’t end when the war does.  They continue to cause disruption for years afterward.  In U.S. history, after the Civil War and Reconstruction ended, Jim Crow laws and violence against African Americans began. This resulted in the Great Migration–the largest internal migration event in our history.  But after World War I, there was a smaller but still important migration to France.  Some of the emigrés are household names, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  But others moved for a different type of freedom:  an escape from the racism, violence, and lack of opportunity found at home. 

    WWI & The Summer After

    World War I brought a complicated opportunity to African Americans.  On one hand, fighting for a country that had repeatedly failed them seemed like lunacy at best.  On the other, perhaps this was the chance for Blacks to prove their value in a very important and public endeavor.  And hopefully, after fighting the war, they could also find success in the battle for civil rights. 

    As in most areas of American life, the military was officially segregated.  Racist treatment of Black soldiers was endemic.  Instead of fighting, they received demeaning labor assignments.  They also endured inhumane work conditions, unequal restrictions, and unfair punishments.  Basically, not much different than at home. 

    Under the French

    However, Black American soldiers who were placed under the French command had a much better time of it.  Though not perfect (nor is France’s record on race relations), it was a huge improvement over the treatment received from their fellow Americans.  The French people also embraced the Black soldiers. They were saviors fighting the enemy. And the African American culture, especially jazz music and dance, enchanted them.

    Even before the war, France had a reputation for being “color blind” compared to the U.S.  Once there, the Black soldiers were able to experience first hand the relative freedom of life away from Jim Crow.  And after the war, some would return to that freedom.

    Home Again

    Back home, African Americans faced even more challenges. They arrived in early 1919 to a country in crisis. The Spanish Flu was at the beginning of its third wave. And the economy was struggling to re-assimilate about a million soldiers into the workforce.  Tensions were high.  Whites felt threatened by the now trained–and in many cases decorated–Black veterans.  Veterans who now rightfully sought equality in the U.S.  Predictably a large number of Whites wanted to retain the pre-war status quo. 

    The conflict came to a head during the Red Summer. Named for the amount of blood shed in lynchings, riots, and other violence across the country, it cemented the idea that leaving was better than staying for those who could swing it. 

    How To Get To France?

    Getting to France was the first challenge. Some African Americans emigrated on their own, scraping together the money for the passenger ticket.  Others made it over as part of entertainment troupes or jazz bands.  Some, like their White counterparts, only stayed for awhile.  Some, instead, stayed for a lifetime. 

    Setting Sail

    The 1920s were a golden age for sailing and the American dollar was king.  However, that did not make the passenger fares cheap.  The “tourist cabin”–a new level of Third Class intended for students and budget travelers–was the sailing equivalent of coach seating on an international flight.  Everything you needed was included.  Everything you wanted was reserved for First and Second Class. 

    It was theoretically better than the steerage accommodations in the traditional third class, which was meant for immigration to the U.S. (think Titanic). At least on the RMS Olympic (Titanic‘s erstwhile sister), the Tourist Cabin looks like a compromise between the old Second Class and Third Class spaces.

    The cabin is preparing travelers for French-sized apartments

    The tickets were about the same price as a modern plane ticket after currency conversion.  For example, a one-way ticket ran about $128 in 1928. This is the equivalent of $1,910 now*.  So not much more than a high season plane ticket booked a bit too late.  Except it took a week and you got a bedroom and three squares a day!


    Nevertheless, then like now, these prices were quite high for a lot of families.  Especially those struggling against systemic lack of opportunity.  This meant going over was a bit easier for those in the entertainment industry, as the show producers covered the costs.

    France’s fascination with Black culture had not ended with the war. Black American entertainers were highly sought after. Impresarios basically “imported” talent, including dancers and musicians. The most famous example of this is the extraordinary Josephine Baker.  She found instant and lasting success in Paris and ended up living in France the rest of her life.  She was even awarded three different medals and honors for her activities in the French Resistance! 

    Josephine in Uniform

    Despite being an ocean away from home, the Americans remained de facto segregated. Most of the Black American community was centered in the bohemian Montmartre area of the right bank.  In contrast, the White community was centered on the left bank, near the Luxembourg Gardens and Montparnasse. 

    After the 1929 stock market crash and resulting Great Depression made Paris more expensive, and as fascism grew next door in Germany, a number of Americans returned home in the 1930s.  And any people of color who could flee German-occupied France did; the Nazis didn’t limit themselves to removing the Jews. Those who returned after the war often became life-long expats and a part of the tapestry of French life. 


    I hope your interest in now piqued for this oft-forgotten piece of history!  Check out these resources to learn more. 

    The War and Aftermath

    The American World War I Museum has put together a Google Arts & Culture Exhibit on the African American Experience in the war.  There are plenty of photos and some stories.  They also need help identifying all of the soldiers in the images, if you recognize anyone from your family!

    You can read more about the Red Summer in these articles here and here.  To go deeper, check out the book Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter.

    The African American Experience in Paris

    While the post-WWII years are fairly well documented, there are fewer options for the Interwar period. However, there are several books on the topic ranging from general history to specific experiences:

    For a more visual experience, the award-winning documentary Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (it does not seem to be related to the book) is available to rent or buy here.

    Thank you for coming along on this transatlantic journey! 

    In Part Two, we look further at the genealogical resources available for this time period. 

    Do you have any family that went to France between the Wars? And would you leave your home country for better treatment and opportunity or stick it out at home? Let me know below!



    Image Credits
    Cover Photo: RMS Mauritania. From Monovisions Black & White Photography Magazine.
    Soldiers of 369th: “Colored Troops – New York’s Colored Regiment Returns Home on Stockholm”. From the National Archives, Identifier: 26431282 Public Domain.
    RMS Olympic Brochure: ” White Star Line brochure highlighting the amenities of the new “tourist third cabin” accommodations, 1920s” From the Smithsonian Online Exhibit “On the Water” Part 5, Ocean Crossings 1870-1969. Public Domain.
    Josephine in Uniform: Pinterest PIN 272890058659413750. Joséphine Baker in the uniform of the female auxiliaries of the French Air Force. London, 1945.

    *Sources For Pricing:
    Pricing found in news articles: “Ocean Travel Costs More” in The Indianapolis News, July 12, 1920 (on Hoosier State Chronicles). “Third Cabin Fares Are Increase by $5” New York Times Nov. 27, 1927. “Travel Club Protests Tourist Ticket Rise” New York Times Feb. 13, 1928. NYT articles available on ProQuest.
    Conversion costs found on Measuring Worth.com, using the Real Price-Commodity calculation: Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1790 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2021.