Josephine Baker is a shining example of how an entertainer can use their platform to change the world. Born in St. Louis Missouri on June 3, 1906, Baker went on to become a prolific dancer, singer and intelligence operative during the World War II. Baker performed for mostly white audiences, but she incorporated African themes into her dance style. She is also a prominent figure in French history due to her role in the war and her many performances throughout the country. Here are some key facts about the 20th century entertainer.
How she got her start in entertainment
Baker's parents were both entertainers and performed throughout the segregated Midwest. When she was 15, Baker joined an African American theatre troupe from Philadelphia and eventually moved to New York. The dancer took up the inspiring influence of the Harlem Renaissance and dazzled audiences during Vaudeville shows, a popular theatre genre in the 20th century.
Her success brought her to Paris, where her Danse Sauvage, "Savage Dance" in French, entranced viewers in the 1920s along with her unique costumes.
While Germany occupied France during World War II, Baker entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East. Little did they know that she was also a member of the Red Cross, the Résistance and the Free French forces. The dancer would smuggle intelligence by pinning secrets under her dress or hiding it in her sheet music. After the war, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honour, France’s highest military honor.
The "rainbow tribe"
As part of her commitment to integration, Baker adopted 12 total babies of various nationalities in the 1950s. Calling it her "rainbow tribe," she would raise her children at Les Milandes, her estate in southwestern France.
The Civil Rights Movement
Following World War II, Baker traveled several times to the United States and supported the Civil Rights Movement. Not only would she refused to perform at venues where Black people weren't allowed, but she would sometimes force owners to integrate her shows. The dancer was also one of the few women to speak at the March on Washington in 1963. This was part of her speech, according to the National Women's History Museum:
You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
Resting in France
Josephine Baker passed away on April 12, 1975 at a hospital in Paris. Her funeral was quite the affair. Over 20,000 people attended her funeral procession, and she was even given a 21-gun salute. The activist and dancer was also the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors.
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