Josephine Baker: The Entertainer, World War II Spy, and Civil Rights Activist Gets her Flowers

Josephine Baker will the first Black woman buried at The Pantheon in Paris. According to NPR, the American–born singer and dancer will be reinterred on November 30th at the Pantheon monument, making her the first entertainer and Black woman to receive the highest honor in France. Le Parisien newspaper reported that French President Emmanuel Macron decided to organize the ceremony that will have her remains lying beside other French luminaries such as chemist Marie Curie and writer Victor Hugo. The move is to honor Baker for her contributions to the French Resistance during World War II as well as her civil rights activism.

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, MO to Carrie Mc Donald, the identity of her father is unknown. It was speculated that Bakers’ father was of German descent as her mother worked for a German family around the time she became pregnant however, her mother refused to discuss and let people believe a man name Eddie Carson was the father. Josephine grew up in a low- income neighborhood and frequently went hungry as a child. She began domestic work at 8 years old and dropped out of school by the age of 12.

By the age 13 she began working as a waitress and met her first husband, Willie Wells, whom she divorced by age 14. In 1921 at age 15, she had married her second husband, Willie Baker, whose name she would keep, and began working as a street performer with the Jones Family Band. In 1925, Baker left her husband after her Vaudeville Troupe booked a New York City performance. Although she would bring back money and gifts to her mother and younger siblings, the rocky relationship with her mother led her to take a trip to France. On October 2, 1925, at age 19, Baker opened in La Revue Negre (The Negro Review) at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. The combination of her barely there banana costume and exotic dancing helped her to gain popularity and success in Paris. Baker tried hard to gain the same popularity in America that she had in France but was met with harsh criticism. In 1937, she returned to Paris and married French Industrialist, Jean Lion, which allowed her to become a legal citizen of France and give up her American citizenship.

In September 1939, Baker was recruited by the French military intelligence agency after France declared war on Germany in response to their invasion of Poland. During this time, Baker would socialize at gatherings and collect information to send back to France. She would write these notes with invisible ink on her sheet music and place in her underwear, depending on her popularity to keep her from being stripped searched.

In the 1950’s Baker supported the Civil Rights Movement in America by refusing to perform for segregated audiences. She worked with the NAACP, where she was presented with a lifetime membership by Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dr. Ralph Bunche. In 1963, Baker spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., being the only official female speaker. It’s reported that after Dr. King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King approached Baker about becoming the new leader to the Civil Rights Movement, with the later declining due to her children. During her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, Baker began adopting children from all over the world, 12 in total. She often referred to them as “The Rainbow Tribe” and wanted to prove that children from different religions and backgrounds can still be family.

During her lifetime, Josephine Baker, made huge contributions to the civil rights movement, entertainment and fashion industry, and the LGBTQ community, that is still being felt decades later.  In May 2021, an online petition started by writer Laurent Kupferman to get Baker moved to the Pantheon from her current burial site in Monaco. In August 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron agreed. Baker’s son, Jean-Claude has said that her body will remain in Monaco and a plaque will be installed at the Pantheon.