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Who Was Josephine Baker?

Josephine Baker was a dazzling 20th-century icon who transcended entertainment as a dancer, singer, and actress. Her activism and espionage during WWII showcased her depth beyond the stage. As the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, she broke barriers and charmed the world. Discover how Baker's legacy continues to inspire today. What will her story spark in you?
R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Josephine Baker (1906 - 1975) was an entertainer, a civil rights activist, and a member of the French Resistance during World War II. Though American-born, this descendant of South Carolina slaves and Apalachee Indians adopted France as her own when she was still a young woman.

Josephine Baker, born Freda Josephine McDonald, was a native of St. Louis, Missouri and came from humble beginnings. Her father, a vaudeville drummer by some accounts, might be the reason behind Josephine’s early attraction to entertainment. As a child, she danced in the streets for change, and by age 15, she joined vaudeville in the St. Louis chorus line. In the immediate years following, Josephine Baker made her way to New York, where she appeared at the Plantation Club and in Broadway chorus lines during a period known as the Harlem Renaissance. Even at this early stage in her career, Baker stood out from the crowd and from the women of her time, and by 1925, she was the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville.

Josephine Baker was the descendant of South Carolina slaves.
Josephine Baker was the descendant of South Carolina slaves.

Josephine Baker’s life changed again when she went on tour to Europe in 1925, appearing at the Theater des Champs-Elysees. Far from the racism of America and its Puritanical restrictions, Baker blossomed into an exotic dancer, coming up with wildly entertaining performances and gimmicks throughout the tour. In one show, she wore nothing but high heels and a belt of bananas around her waist to simulate a skirt. She also frequently had Chiquita, her pet leopard, with her on stage, who occasionally leaped into the orchestra pit to prowl among the nervous musicians.

Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis and performed in a chorus line there.
Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis and performed in a chorus line there.

In the 1930s, Josephine Baker starred in a number of films and married her manager, Giuseppe Abatinao. With Madonna-like finesse, she again remade herself from a bawdy vaudeville entertainer into a cultural pop icon. Her fans included such notables as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso.

By the 1940s, Josephine Baker was so popular that even the Nazis left her unharmed during the invasion of France. She wanted to repay her adopted country for her success and was active in the Underground, the French Resistance during World War II. The French government later awarded Josephine Baker the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War).

Throughout the 1950s, Baker remained in France but actively and passionately supported the American Civil Rights movement.
Throughout the 1950s, Baker remained in France but actively and passionately supported the American Civil Rights movement.

Throughout the 1950s, Baker remained in France but actively and passionately supported the American Civil Rights movement. She went through several marriages and a hysterectomy that left her unable to bear children, but she adopted 12 ethnically-diverse orphans, whom she referred to as her Rainbow Tribe.

While Baker’s success in Europe was phenomenal, she never enjoyed the same degree of popularity in her native country of America. However, by the 1970s, the civil rights movement had made sufficient strides, which Baker had aided by refusing to perform in segregated clubs. Josephine Baker appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1973 to a standing ovation, openly weeping in response. Though she had attained the status of a legend, Baker's career was winding down and money became a problem. Princess Grace of Monaco, a former American actress and friend, gave Baker an apartment.

Baker’s final performance was to star in a 50-year retrospective of her life entitled Josephine. It opened in Paris at Club Bobino to stellar reviews, but she would not live to enjoy the run. One week later, on 8 April 1975, Josephine Baker died of a brain hemorrhage. It was reported that she was found in bed, surrounded by newspapers full of editorial praise for the show.

Josephine Baker was cremated, given a public funeral procession that included French Military honors, and interred in a cemetery in Monaco. She was also entered into the St. Louis Hall of Fame. “The Black Venus,” as she was sometimes called, remains a historical figure of great talent, diversity, will, and courage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Josephine Baker and why is she significant?

Josephine Baker was an American-born French entertainer, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. Born on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, she gained fame for her sultry performances and unique dance style. Baker was the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture, "Siren of the Tropics" in 1927, and to become a world-renowned entertainer. Her work with the French Resistance during World War II and her vocal support for civil rights made her a significant figure beyond the entertainment industry. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'Honneur by the French government for her wartime efforts.

What were some of Josephine Baker's most notable performances?

Josephine Baker's most notable performances include her debut at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1925, where her "Danse Sauvage" wearing a banana skirt became iconic. She starred in the Folies Bergère in Paris, one of the most popular entertainment venues of the time. Her performances in "La Revue Nègre" and "Zouzou" further cemented her status as a leading figure in the performing arts. Her stage presence and charisma were unparalleled, making her a symbol of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.

How did Josephine Baker contribute to the French Resistance?

During World War II, Josephine Baker served the French Resistance with distinction. Utilizing her celebrity status as a cover, she gathered intelligence while performing in various European countries. She carried secret messages written in invisible ink on her music sheets and even smuggled secret photos of German military installations in her underwear. Her efforts were recognized by the French government, which awarded her the Croix de Guerre and made her a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur.

What role did Josephine Baker play in the Civil Rights Movement?

Josephine Baker was a passionate advocate for civil rights, refusing to perform for segregated audiences in the United States and using her platform to speak against racial discrimination. In 1963, she took part in the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr., where she was the only official female speaker. Her speech highlighted her personal experiences with racism and her dream of racial harmony. Baker's activism extended to adopting 12 children from around the world, whom she called her "Rainbow Tribe," to demonstrate that individuals of different ethnicities can live together harmoniously.

What is Josephine Baker's legacy today?

Josephine Baker's legacy today is multifaceted. She is remembered as a trailblazing artist who broke racial barriers, a hero of the French Resistance, and a civil rights activist. Her influence on the entertainment industry, particularly in dance and performance style, continues to be celebrated. In 2021, she was honored with a Panthéon burial, one of France's highest honors, making her the first Black woman to receive such a tribute. Her life and work continue to inspire discussions on race, gender, and social justice.

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    • Josephine Baker was the descendant of South Carolina slaves.
      By: DomLortha
      Josephine Baker was the descendant of South Carolina slaves.
    • Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis and performed in a chorus line there.
      By: Marty Haas
      Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis and performed in a chorus line there.
    • Throughout the 1950s, Baker remained in France but actively and passionately supported the American Civil Rights movement.
      By: benkenogy
      Throughout the 1950s, Baker remained in France but actively and passionately supported the American Civil Rights movement.