Civil rights activist, music hall star, hero of the French resistance, spy… Even if you’re unfamiliar with Josephine Baker’s remarkable story, a brief list of her achievements marks her out as a truly unique figure.
In fact, those are just the headlines, if anything they only scrape the surface of Baker’s extraordinary biography. It’s little wonder that she recently became the first black woman to enter France’s Panthéon mausoleum of revered historical figures.
So, who was Josephine Baker?
Josephine Baker’s story begins in St. Louis, Missouri, where she was born on 3 June 1906. Her early years were tough. She grew up in a low-income neighbourhood mostly composed of rooming houses, brothels and apartments without indoor plumbing. Even basic provisions, including food and clothing, were hard to come by and she was forced to work as a live-in domestic for white families from the age of 8.
Among the many difficulties Baker faced as a black child growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood, her early experiences of racial violence were particularly scarring. In a speech, years later, she recalled an especially horrifying incident as though describing a vivid nightmare:
“I can still see myself standing on the west bank of the Mississippi looking over into East St. Louis and watching the glow of the burning of Negro homes lighting the sky. We children stood huddled together in bewilderment…”
Escape to Paris
Baker’s escape from the poverty and racial segregation of St. Louis began when she was recruited as a dancer by a vaudeville show, which whisked her away to New York. Then, in 1925, after a stint in the chorus line of the Broadway revues ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Chocolate Dandies’, she sailed to Paris.
It was in the French capital that Baker shot to stardom. Within a year she’d become something of a sensation, famed for her “Danse Sauvage”, which she performed wearing little more than a string skirt adorned with artificial bananas. Her rise coincided with a trend for non-western, particularly African, aesthetics and Baker’s act certainly exemplified a somewhat caricatured interpretation of the exotic colonial fantasies that abounded in 1920s Paris.
She even took to the stage with a pet Cheetah, Chiquita, who wore a diamond-studded collar and frequently caused havoc in the orchestra pit.
Before long Baker’s giddy ascent to Parisian stardom saw her become a recording artist, opera performer and film star.
Apart from a brief spell back in New York, Baker had spent more than a decade living in Paris by the time World War Two broke out in 1939. She was clearly alert to the rising tide of fascism as it spread through Europe in the late 1930s. In fact, Baker was already a member of a prominent antiracist group when France declared war on Germany, at which point she was recruited by the French military intelligence agency as an “honourable correspondent”.
Her work as a counterintelligence agent entailed socialising with high-ranking German, Japanese, Italian and Vichy officials, a role she was well-positioned to take on thanks to her standing as one of France’s best-connected socialites, not to mention her charming personality. Baker was able to collect valuable information without raising suspicion.
One of her most notable missions as a spy for exiled French leader Charles de Gaulle entailed obtaining information on Benito Mussolini and discretely reporting it to London written in invisible ink on her music sheets.
After the war, Baker was acclaimed as a hero and decorated with an array of honours, including the Resistance Medal by the French Committee of National Liberation, the Croix de Guerre by the French military, as well as being named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
Civil rights activist
Baker’s wartime heroism only served to enhance her revered standing in France, lending gravitas to her enormous celebrity, and there can be little doubt that she regarded herself as essentially French. Nonetheless, she remained deeply attuned to the racial divisions that continued to blight America and became a fierce participant in the civil rights movement as it began to gather momentum in the 1950s.
Baker’s crusading antiracism campaigning won her acclaim from the prominent civil rights organisation NAACP, which went so far as to declare Sunday 20 May 1951 ‘Josephine Baker Day’. Later, in 1963, she was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, an event made famous by Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.
‘No one was more French’
On Tuesday 30 November 2021, Baker’s entrance into the Panthéon mausoleum in Paris, where she joins the likes of Mirabeau, Voltaire, Marie Curie and Simone Veil, was accompanied by an elaborate ceremony. In place of her body, which remains in Monaco, where she was buried in 1975, a symbolic casket containing soil from various locations that Baker had lived, including St. Louis, Paris, the South of France and Monaco, was carried in by members of the French Airforce.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke at the ceremony, lauding Baker’s remarkable contribution as a heroic civil rights activist and pointing out that she had served her adopted nation “without seeking glory” and “defended equality for all above individual identity”. He added that “no one was more French” than Josephine Baker.