Josephine Baker was an icon of the jazz age. She was beautiful, funny and brave.
She may be best remembered for dancing topless in only her beads and a skirt made of bananas, but she was a talented singer and dancer.
In her most important work, she was devoted to fighting against segregation, racism and anti-semitism.
Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, MO to Carrie McDonald, a laundress, and Eddie Carson, a vaudeville performer. Eddie left Carrie soon after Josephine was born.
At a young age, Josephine danced on the streets of Missouri, bringing home small change. She caught the eye of The Jones Family Band, a street performance troupe, and left home to tour with them. She was spotted by an African-American Theater troupe and joined them when she was only 15 years old. It wasn't long before her talent and charisma carried her onto the Broadway stage, and famous New York City venues.
But with prohibition well underway, Josephine, like so many other American artists of the time, left America for France. Things were cheap there, with the franc woefully low at 24 to the dollar, and Paris had plenty to offer in art, music and dance. In 1925 Paris, two women could even walk hand in hand without worry.
But while most of the pleasure-seeking Americans were looking to spread their new money around, and avoid the hassle of prohibition at home; Josephine was escaping the hostility and rampant racism of the US audiences. She was disgusted by the treatment in her homeland, and would continue to fight racism and segregation in the US for the rest of her life.
Paris had a history of recognizing avant-garde art, and audiences were already smitten with African culture. They embraced Josephine whole-heartedly. Baker's most infamous half-nude, banana skirt dance took place in 1926 Paris, in a performance called La Folie du Jour. Josephine's beauty and erotic style of dance took Paris by storm.
"The most sensational woman anyone ever saw."
~ Ernest Hemingway
Josephine was celebrated by other artist and scholars, and given nicknames like the "Black Venus", "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess". In 1927, she was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture, a silent film called Siren of The Tropics.
She became one of the highest paid, most popular performers living in Europe. French audiences adored her, and she adored them back. It's been rumored that she'd received over 1,000 marriage proposals.
During World War ll, Josephine joined the French Resistance. When Hitler and the German army invaded France, she quickly became a spy. She'd write down bits of conversations she heard while performing for the enemy, then smuggled the messages, written on her sheet music, back to French military officials.
When the war ended, Josephine Baker was the first American-born woman ever to receive one of the highest French military honors, the “La Croix de Guerre.”
She became an official French citizen in 1937, when she renounced her American citizenship and married Jean Lion, a Jewish French industrialist.
But Josephine never forgot about the United States. In the 1950's she returned to her homeland and joined The Civil Rights movement. She fought segregation in clubs and concert venues and refused to perform if the club was segregated. Josephine would not perform in her own hometown of St. Louis until 1952, when the city’s Kiel Auditorium finally allowed desegregated audiences to come see her.
In 1953, Josephine began to adopt children from diverse backgrounds. It was an effort to prove that people from all ethnicities could live together in harmony. She called them her "Rainbow Tribe" and adopted 13 children in total.
In the 1970's, after decades of rejection in America, and a lifetime spent fighting racism, Josephine performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She was finally given proper acknowledgment and greeted with a standing ovation, which caused her to cry on stage in front of her audience. The show was a huge success.
"I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed.”
~ Josephine Baker
On April 12, 1975 Josephine died in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68. On the day of her funeral, in her beloved Paris, France, over 20,000 people lined up to watch the procession. The French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making her the first American born woman in history to receive military honors.
Josephine Baker Day is May 20th.
The Observance Day was instituted by the NAACP, for her work and commitment to civil rights.