“We were giving dozens of walking tours every year,” exclaims Entree to Black Paris co-founder Monique Wells. She adds, “We started with just four tours: Black Paris After WWII, Montparnasse – The Artist's World, In the Shadow of Montmartre, and On and Around the Grandest of Avenues – The Champs Elysees.”
Today the Houston, Texas, native and her husband Tom Reeves offer 13 different walking tours that explore various parts of Paris or are based on a Black artist who lived there, including Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Beauford Delaney. “And there are a couple more tours in the works, but COVID stopped me in my tracks,” Wells laments.
The entrepreneur, historian and author started out as a veterinary and toxicologist. She had studied French from grade school through college, and while living in California working for a chemical company, she started taking classes at Alliance Française in Berkeley. Her French teacher introduced her to her husband, who was also taking classes there and worked at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Alameda.
When Wells decided she needed to live in France to be completely fluent in the language, she started pursuing jobs in the country. And two years later in 1992, she and Reeves moved to Paris. While in a group for Black women called “Sisters,” Wells met a British woman who created two walking tours about the African American experience in Paris. “And that was my first exposure to Black Paris,” notes Wells.
Years later, she and her husband got the idea for their Discover Paris tours from a tour they took in Italy. “We did a tour through Insider’s Italy, and the owner’s business premise [was] that you would tell her what you wanted to do and where you wanted to go and she would write you a personal guidebook,” Wells explains. “And that’s the business model Tom and I created for Discover Paris, which was launched in 1999.
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Years later, when our client base became predominantly African Americans who were interested in the Black Paris experience, we rebranded it in 2019 to ‘Entree to Black Paris.’ We did a lot of work with study abroad groups who are coming here for African American studies or American studies with a look at the Black American Paris experience. And we had lots of repeat business with great testimonials, but when the pandemic happened, our business just went to zero. We were KO’d,” mourns Wells.
From Dead End to New Route
“But then something happened which gave us a new lease on life, so to speak,” she continues. “As a result of George Floyd’s murder, there was the outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter across the globe and France was a part of that. It exposed the fact that various countries have their own versions of Black Lives Matter. And that brought a lot of interest to Entree to Black Paris.”
“So I was contacted by a man named Oliver Gee who is Australian and has lived in France for several years. He has a podcast called, The Earful Tower, and he wanted to support Black Lives Matter in a real way. And he went to his Facebook audience and asked what he could do in Paris and several people advised him to contact me.”
Gee originally wanted Entree to Black Paris to contribute a walking tour as a prize for the crowdfunding he was doing to raise money for a non-profit that was helping the Black community. Then he decided to give the donations to Wells.
“He checked out the website for my Wells International Foundation (WIF) and loved what we were doing with women and people of African descent and thought it was the perfect non-profit for his crowdfunding,” she says. “So we did an Intro to Black Paris tour which was live-streamed to his global audience and he put it on YouTube. And within five days, he had raised more than $11,000 dollars for my organization!”
“A few months after that, Dr. Maxine Cain, who runs STEM Atlanta Women, referred Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy to me. They wanted their students to develop a global consciousness, so they asked me to do an online walking tour of Paris for them, says Wells. “And I had just recently done a video tour with Oliver Gee, which was free to watch online. So Oliver agreed to be on a Zoom with me and we ran clips of the video for the students, and the students asked us questions or got commentary from us in between clips. That was the beginning of the Virtual Black Paris Experience,” boasts Wells.
And the collaborations didn’t stop there. “Columbia University’s Global Center in Paris asked me to do a series of very short vignettes about Beauford Delaney as an artist who lived in the Montparnasse area where Columbia Global Centers is located,” Wells notes. “We also created the first-ever live exhibit of more than 40 works by Beauford Delaney in their space and the reading of the biographical play, ‘Amazing Grace is Yellow.’ So we have a very strong relationship, and they’ve become a source for our summer internship program,” she shares.
“In addition to Entree to Black Paris, we also do Gourmet Paris, and I have become involved with a French organization called, The Academy of Culinary Art for the Creole World,” says Wells. “The organization’s goal is to promote the diversity of Creole cuisines, including the Francophone Creole cuisine, to people around the world. And as their U.S. delegate, I organize cooking lessons and other events for them and connect them to Creole chefs and others in the state who promote this particular type of cuisine. They could be from France or moved here from the French-speaking countries like Martinique, Guadeloupe or Haiti. And the United States has its own Creole cuisine from Louisiana and from South Carolina’s and Georgia’s coastal islands with the Gullah/Geechee cuisine,” she adds.
Wells continues, “Also during the pandemic, we worked with Karen Thomas, founder of the Marian P. Thomas Charter School High School of Culinary and Performing Arts in Newark, New Jersey. I created a food blogging course that would allow them a platform to blog about their culinary cooking lessons that were going to be run by a chef here in Paris. Unfortunately, the pandemic tabled that because of the 6 p.m. curfew in Paris, which was the time we had set to do the classes because of the six-hour time difference. But it’s still planned for when things get to the new normal,” she says with confidence.
Beyond Food and Travel
One of the programs Wells is most proud of did happen despite and because of the pandemic—
WIF’s COVID-19 Pages. “Dr. Celeste Hart, who is one of our biggest donors, is an endocrinologist and owner of the Anderson Brickler Gallery in Tallahassee, Florida. She suggested that we do something virtually that honored the essential work that women were doing during the pandemic, explains Wells. “So, her curator, Kabuya Bowens-Saffo helped us pull it together and gave it its name. Phase one was having professional women create art that honored a woman on the front lines. While phase two included community outreach to K-12 school and organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters, domestic violence shelters and eldercare facilities.”
She continues, “We asked these organizations to have their women and girls create art to honor not only the women doing essential work during the pandemic but also to use this opportunity to create art as a means of healing emotions as a result of the pandemic. The online catalog has nearly 200 pages and the work is superb,” Wells says. The gallery will be taken offline on September 30, but Wells hopes to get a corporate sponsor to keep it going in a tangible form, like a book.
Through WIF, Wells also received funding to launch her Youth Veterinarian Initiative from WIF's work in STEM with her collaborative partner, the Philanthropy Alliance Foundation. The initiative exposes underrepresented minority youth to the field of veterinary medicine. “As a veterinary pathologist, I know that veterinary medicine is one of the whitest professions in the United States,” says Wells. “We kicked off with a two-part presentation that I did to introduce the field to kids and then to explain why pursuit of the arts is important if you want to go into a scientific profession. My partner in this project lives on a 30-acre farm in Arkansas and she’s going to have kids from rural Arkansas come to her farm and interact with the animals there, while students outside of the area or other states will be watching it on Zoom,” she adds.
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Black Lives Matter
Entree to Black Paris is a member of the Paris Tourist Office. “So the Paris Tourist Office asked us to do a mini version of the virtual tour I did with Oliver Gee for them. And that’s now on their website and on YouTube,” says Wells.
She admits, “When we joined the Paris Tourist Office, the tourist industry across France was just flat and they’ve been doing everything they can to build it back up, so they gave us a lot of opportunities, even listing our tour in French and English. And I told them in my tours I talk about [racial] issues that this country doesn’t want to talk about. Is that going to fly with your superiors?’ And they had to talk about it, and it took weeks for them to get back to us. But they eventually said let’s do it.’”
“I have done a PowerPoint presentation for study abroad groups and private groups for years called Black Paris and the Myth of a Color Blind France. And I used to approach that from the standpoint of African Americans thinking that France was color blind. But because of Black Lives Matter, I have now added the view of why the French think France is color blind. And it’s clearly a fallacy,” she admits.
The expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement put Entrée to Black Paris and Wells International Foundation on the minds of organizations that never reached out to Wells before. “I’ve given my Myth of a Color Blind France to the big, traditional tour companies because of this new interest [in Black culture and history], and now we’ve been added to their lists. And I think more study abroad groups are going to be asking for this too.”
At the end of our conversation, she says, “I believe collaboration and cooperation will help us and other small businesses to survive this pandemic.”
To book a tour, click tours on the website and register online, or email Monique at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Entree to Black Paris on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest as well as the Wells International Foundation on Facebook and Twitter.