Josephine Baker(1906-1975), was an American-born French dancer and singer, civil rights activist and spy for the French Resistance. Baker used her platform as an entertainer to change the world, today we honor her life and her story.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald, on June 3rd, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. As a child, starting at age eight, Josephine cleaned houses to help support her family. She ran away from home at age 13 and worked as a waitress. She started dancing in clubs and doing street performances. Then, in 1919, she began touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers.
In 1921 Baker married Willie Baker, she divorced him a few years later but kept his name for the rest of her life. She landed several roles, and she flourished as a dancer in Vaudeville shows. Baker quickly became the crowd favorite because of her talent and comedic touch.
Baker Traveled to Paris, France in 1925 to perform, she quickly became one of Europe’s most popular and highest-paid performers. She sang professionally and landed roles in film. In 1936, Baker returned to the United States with the hope of establishing herself as a performer in America. Sadly, Baker was greeted with racism and hostility, so she quickly returned to France.
With the onslaught of World War II, Baker joined the fight against the Nazi regime. She began working for the Red Cross and entertaining the troops. But her most important work for the French Resistance was smuggling messages hidden in her sheet music. After the war ended, Baker was awarded two of France’s highest military honors for her efforts.
Perhaps one of the most enduring and amazing things Baker did in her life was to settle in Les Milandes after the war and adopt children, 12 in total, from all around the world. She referred to her family as her “rainbow tribe”, and she invited people to visit her estate as a way to promote racial harmony and brotherhood.
The Civil Rights Movement drew Baker back to the United States to help. She boycotted venues that supported segregation and participated in demonstrations. She worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke at the March on Washington in 1963.
Finally, in 1973, Baker performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, and after so many years of rejection and racism, she was celebrated with a standing ovation by the audience. This marked the Baker’s comeback to the stage, this time in the United States.
Baker passed away in her sleep at the age of 68. The streets of Paris were filled with thousands of people for her funeral procession. Josephine Baker became the first American woman in French history to be buried with military honors.
Josephine Baker was a hero for her fight against poverty, her fight against racism, and her fight against the Nazis. Today we celebrate her, She Made History!
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