Walking The Spirit

If you ask Julia Browne how she came up with the idea for Walking The Spirit Tours, a customized tour company which focuses on Black heritage, she would tell you it was completely unplanned. But an encounter with a historian triggered a curiosity that led to the successful travel business she runs today.  However to get the story of Walking The Spirit you have to start with her own.

Julia was born in the UK to Caribbean parents, who were part of the Windrush generation that had moved to the British Isles primarily during the 1950s and 1960s. Like many children of immigrants, her identity was heavily influenced by her surroundings.

“My experiences and outlook were very much colored by the environment I grew up in. I grew up in England and we had family and cousins around. We weren’t the only Blacks, but we didn’t always feel welcomed, either,” she says. “Parents next door didn’t want their kids to play with us (but they did anyway). There was a great sense of division. There was white and there were ‘you Others’.I got the sense of being on the outside. Or being something that was abnormal.”

The outsider status feeling only grew when her family eventually relocated to Canada in the mid-60s. They moved to a town with strong German roots and were the only Black family in the community. She remembers with frankness that although the adults were outwardly welcoming, there were sometimes biting comments and bullying  from the kids, which she attributed to some of the parents’ closed door behavior. So what do you do? You try to fit in. She became very good at making her classmates laugh.

She recalls, “As a child, [for me] there was no sense of Blackness. There was no pride in being Black, because it was seen as different. I remember there was an Indian girl who joined my class. I would consciously  not to talk to her because it would remind people that I’m different, too. You want to be bigger than that, but then you’re a kid yourself.”

Relocating to France

In 1990, Julia relocated to Paris with her French husband when they decided they wanted a change from life in Montreal. Their first of two children was born the following year.  Despite being busy with parenthood and scrambling after intermittent work, she was still able to carve out some time to learn more about her host city.

While attending a course at the Sorbonne, she studied with a professor who had created the Center for African American Studies there and who exposed her to African American history in France. “Professor Michel Fabre  opened the door for me. He published for a conference a book called A Street Guide to African Americans in Paris. I just followed it around,” she recalls. “I’m always super curious about the places I live in. I was living in the 17th district and I was thrilled  to find out Langston Hughes had lived in my district! I snuck into the building when the concierge was busy and hiked right up to what would’ve been his door on the sixth floor. I mean, how crazy amazing was that!”

Julia with clients at the Richard Wright plaque in Paris

This became a spark in how she viewed her host city. She began walking around Paris, starting with her own neighborhood and realizing how much rich Black history around her. Paris brought her face-to-face  with Black women, many from sub-Saharan Africa, with whom she’d rarely interacted previously. She had been unaware of the various diaspora communities and was enthralled by the sense of style and vibrant clothing these women wore. It was a different world that led to self-reflective questions in the context of her own identity experiences.

“Now came a new question: what part of the Black diaspora am I? Are my experiences as valid as anyone else, even though I never grew up amongst a Black community?

Even among my US American friends, they would talk about things I knew nothing about. Like grits! I very much felt my Canadian-ness when I was with my American friends. But then I was conscious of  my North American self when I was with women from other parts of the diaspora [in France]. Then there’s just being treated differently by the French because you’re American, or Canadian. Canadian didn’t mean much for the French at the time. They just assumed there were no Blacks in Canada, so you’re American.”

She eventually connected more with other Black people in Paris, through community groups such as Sisters, and individuals started asking her to show them this history she had been learning and actively researching. This expanded into organizing tours for friends and associates who had family coming into town for a visit. Although Julia had a day job, teaching at a management school, she led  these informal tours on the weekends.

Julia organically started to a build a following that came primarily, in the pre-Internet days, through word of mouth. Eventually, an editor from Essence magazine contacted her to request one of her tours. From there her business idea began to catch on, but she still struggled for recognition among travel professionals.

“I wrote to travel agents  in the US to see if they’d be interested. And they asked me, ‘why would anyone ever be interested in this?’ Then I got my first big coverage from Gary Lee at the Wall Street Journal. Travelers would come up to me, all excited, waving the article  in their hand.” And the rest became history.

Next Stage

The mission of Walking The Spirit Tours is the same today as it was when Julia first launched her company: for participants to physically  walk or bus through the streets and feel their weight and their presence in French history and culture. The goal was for them to follow the trail of their connection and contribution to this country, with pride and a sense of ownership.  The company does this through its well-known walking and bus tours as well as through customized itineraries to create personalized experiences. The expectation is that participants gain exposure to Black culture and the influence of African American, Caribbean and African cultures – mixed with lots of fun  French joie de vivre – so they get a well-rounded, enriched experience.

Julia at the Eiffel Tower

The company started its focus on Paris but has since expanded beyond the capital city. “We have a different kind of history in Nantes, which is on the northwest coast of France, in Brittany. It was the largest slave ship port in France. So most of the slave ships in Nantes were built to transport goods to Africa where they then picked up their human cargo. The city became obscenely prosperous from the trade so we show people that history, we discuss it, we absorb it. We go to Bordeaux and the Dordogne region and stroll through Josephine Baker’s marvellous chateau, which is now classed a Historic Monument. We also head down the French Riviera and follow the lively trail  of jazz and James Baldwin.”

Beyond France, Julia also partners with travel professionals in Spain and England – each with their own story as it relates to the Black diaspora. She even broadened the tours to include Nova Scotia, Montreal and Toronto.  As a Canadian, she freely admits that the history of Blacks in Canada isn’t as well known as it should be, even to African-Canadians. But many are working to reverse the course and telling those stories – Canadians such as Natasha Henry (Ontario Black History Society), Lesley Wells Harper (Niagara Bound Tours) and public historian Kathy Grant.

“Even though I specialize in France, I offer heritage tours in North America, too. We have a fantastic bus/walk tour in Washington DC.  American and Canadian Black history intersects in many places. In Nova Scotia, for example,  there’s been a black presence for 500 years, with the largest influx coming from the U.S. in the 1700s. The British promised the enslaved Africans freedom and land during the American Revolutionary War. These Black Loyalists  got no land. But the history is well documented. It really hits home when you watch tourists and descendants doing family research checking to see if their family name’s listed on the 8ft structure that’s modeled after a historical document called  The Book Of Negroes. Canadian author Lawrence Hill wrote a best-selling book by the same name which traces the amazing story of one young woman from Africa to US to Canada to England to Sierra Leone.


The Book of Negroes in Birchtown, Nova Scotia
The Book of Negroes in Birchtown, Nova Scotia

Today

These days, Julia shares her time between France and Canada. In addition to her tours, she is invited to speak  at cultural and educational institutions, including the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Those speaking engagements include showing the award-winning documentary by Joanne and David Burke ‘Paris Noir – African Americans in the City of Light’, of which she is associate producer.

“Being on this journey, living between France and Toronto, and continually enlarging my knowledge in Black travel, Black France, Black heritage – I feel that I am becoming a bigger and bigger resource for other people. I work with organizations to make the history and travel more accessible. I stand in front of these auditoriums or classrooms and people are so hungry to find out more, to ask questions, to just get on the plane and go.  There’s a significant Black travel movement on the go right now. But there are still lots of people who don’t believe they can. Travel opens the mind, shows Black people where they have connections and if not, their differences opens dialogues on many levels. It’s exhilarating!

I also want to train people to engage in their history so that they can and should become the tellers of their history.  It is world history.”

Julia’s come full circle. The woman who almost accidentally started a business when she was discovering her own Black identity has become a go-to resource for those wanting to learn more.

“It’s rewarding – and it’s personal – because it helps me to know me and my background – the histories of my people – and builds a pride and intention that wasn’t there before. It’s almost been a life lesson to be able to share this with people. You know, one time on a tour I actually met relatives from the Caribbean who I’d never laid eyes on before. They said I looked like people in their family so  asked where were mine from? And sure enough, we were very close relations.

So here we are, pulling tighter the threads of the Diaspora that once separated us all.

Skip to content