Born as Freda Josephine McDonald, Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3rd, 1906. Baker’s childhood was greatly influenced by her aspiring entertainer parents who paved the way for her career and dream to become a world-famous dancer and entertainer. One of three children, Josephine grew up cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families. Besides doing odd jobs, she would often dance on the streets, collecting money where she could. It was while performing here that she caught her big break and set out to perform with an African American theatre troupe at the age of 15.
Vaudeville, which was a popular theatre genre at the time, set her career off as the most successful African American performer in French History. The majority of Josephine’s dancing career flourished in the city of Paris, where she found immense success through her vaudeville shows and performances. She also discovered that racial segregation in public places was not present as it was in the United States. Josephine starred in La Folie Du Jour and two movies, Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam, in the early 1930s. These were all just a few of the many successful shows and movies Josephine had been a part of. Over the years, Josephine made her mark amongst the French as an entertainer turned singer and film star who eventually made her mark as a rising African American star. However, her experiences with segregation made her an avid player in the fight for African American rights in the United States.
Josephine Baker’s career was not solely defined by her talent. The popular entertainer was known to utilize her platform to heavily advocate for the desegregation of races and consistently refused to perform at segregated venues, throughout her career. Upon her return to the United States in 1963, the Americans did not accept her as she had been welcomed in Europe. Her shows were met with disdain, newspapers shamed her cruelly, with statements like “Negro wench” being published in the New York Times, all of which ultimately forced her to leave for Europe, once again.
Famously acknowledged for her role in fighting the Nazi regime, Josephine served as an aid to the French Resistance in an attempt to fight against Hitler’s racist ideologies. She did so, by housing resistance fighters and delivering messages of espionage. After the fall of the regime, Josephine returned to her city in France and sold pieces of her valuables, like jewelry, to raise money to buy food and coal for the poor people in Paris. Her honorable service and aid during this tough time in European history made her more than a performer- she was a political activist too. Baker was awarded the Medal of the resistance, Rosette de la Résistance, and was also named the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government in honor of her service to the people of France.
Her fight for the rights of the people instilled a fire in Josephine to fight against the present racism and segregation in the United States and in 1963, Josephine returned to the United States. She refused to perform at segregated clubs and was one of the few women who spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Her speech featured her struggle as a black woman in the United States as well as overseas.
“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.”
Through her avid activism, Baker was recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and continued to fight against racial injustices. Until the 1970s, Josephine fought with determination and fearlessness and it wasn’t until her performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall that she was awed by the change her actions had caused. Not only was she met with a standing ovation before the start of the show, but she was welcomed with open arms in a country that had previously rejected her performances. Her career culminated at her final performance at the Bobino Theatre in Paris, which graced celebrities like the Princess of Monaco and many other affluent personalities. She performed a medley of routines that covered her 50-year career in show business and received the best reviews of her career.
Looking back at the multitude of social movements that have taken place in American History, Josephine Baker was a strong personality that found her own unique ways to advocate for the rights of the oppressed. An overlooked persona in American history, Josephine Baker was instrumental in breaking racial barriers and her story has inspired millions throughout the world. Her life story has been beautifully captured in the film released by HBO, titled ‘The Josephine Baker Story’. The film has received five Emmy awards as well as one of three Golden Globes and to this day remains a testament to Josephine Baker’s popular and often overlooked story. Her courage and strength live on.
Thank you, Josephine Baker.