She was a legendary exotic performer who it up stages across Europe. She slithered across the stage wearing only a banana skirt and a string of pearls. She was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture.
Less well known is her lifetime of civil rights activism and her patriotic service on behalf of France, her adopted home.
That service will be recognized in November when Josephine Baker’s remains are removed from the Cimetière de Monaco and reinterred in the Panthéon tombs in Paris.
She’ll join 80 of the greatest of French national heroes who are laid rest in the necropolis at the Panthéon. Only five of them are women.
Throughout her celebrated life, Baker used her visibility and voice in service of humanity. During the Second World War, she served as an ambulance driver and joined the French Resistance, smuggling messages hidden in her lyrics to the Allies.
Baker traveled a long road from humble beginnings to international fame.
She was born in St. Louis in 1906 to a father who performed in vaudeville acts and a mother who worked as a washerwoman. Times were especially hard after her father abandoned the family, and Baker would scavenge for food in garbage cans.
At age eight, she went to work as a servant for wealthy people, and later she got a job as a waitress. She would dance on street corners for money — soon she was dancing in local vaudeville shows. When her troupe got booked into a club in New York City, she left St. Louis for good.
In the early 1920s she left for France, where she found less racial discrimination. By the age of 19 she was performing at the Théâtre de Champs-Élysées in Paris, and she became a fixture at the Folies Bergères — before long she was one of Europe’s biggest stage names.
During WWII, she became a French Resistance agent, and later a passionate civil rights activist.
In 1951, Baker was invited back to the US for a booking at the Stork nightclub in Miami. But she refused to perform there until the owners agreed to desegregate the audience.
That sold-out run led to a national tour, culminating in an appearance in Manhattan, where she rode in the back of a convertible as a 27-car motorcade moved down Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Tens of thousands of people packed the streets, upstairs windows, and fire escapes to get a glimpse of her.
On February 3, 1952, the fabulously rich and famous Josephine Baker finally returned to her hometown of St. Louis. Her memories were dark.
At the Kiel Auditorium downtown, she told the audience about her childhood struggles in the slums, made more difficult by racial division and violence.
We children stood huddled together in bewilderment, not being able to understand the horrible madness of mob violence.
She recalled how, when she was 11, labor and race riots broke out in East St. Louis. From late May to early July 1917, an estimated 40 to 250 African-Americans were murdered by white mobs. Another 6,000 were left homeless.
During the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis, Baker stood on the banks of the Mississippi watching the glow of burning homes light up the sky.
Baker told the audience how she stood on the west bank of the Mississippi watching the glow of burning homes light up the sky.
“We children stood huddled together in bewilderment,” she said, “not being able to understand the horrible madness of mob violence — but here we were hiding behind the skirts of grown ups frightened to death with the screams of the Negro families running across this bridge with nothing but what they had on their backs as their worldly belongings.”
For Baker, the hometown she left behind had become a symbol of “fear, humiliation, misery and terror.”
Eleven years later, Baker joined the Rev. Martin Luther King to speak at the March on Washington. She flew in from France to appear before 250,000 gathered at the Washington Mall.
She was wearing the uniform of the French Resistance.
Her topic was race prejudice in America.
“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents, nd much more. But I cold not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ‘cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.
The entire speech is here.
There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you, so that you can carry on,
Baker’s parting words that day were hopeful:
“I am not a young woman now, friends,” she said. “My life is behind me. There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you, so that you can carry on, and so that you can do those things that I have done. Then, when my fires have burned out, and I go where we all go someday, I can be happy.
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