All month long in February, we’re celebrating Black History Month! Josephine Bakerwas an American dancer/singer/actress who found immense, and sometimes scandalous, notoriety after she became a French expatriate. But it wasn’t all for her appearances on stage.
Born as Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906, Josephine Baker grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. By the age of 12, she had dropped out of school and had taken to the streets of St. Louis where she began street corner dancing to make money. There she was discovered and recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show when she was just 15.
That began her career, which then took her to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. She quickly became known as the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville. Within no time, she headed to France, where her erotic dancing became a signature of the Folies Bergères. And it was while in France that Baker took on her most intriguing job of all…as a spy for the French resistance.
When World War II broke out, Baker was the toast of Paris. She was also extremely captivating to the Nazi soldiers who had invaded France as well. Because of this, Baker was recruited as a spy for the French resistance, keeping her eyes and ears open at parties and gatherings where the Nazis were present. She was able to smuggle secrets on to the French resistance by writing them on her sheet music in invisible ink.
She was also extremely active in helping many French citizens who were put in danger by the Nazis acquire visas and passports to leave France.
Baker continued her work as a human rights activist throughout the rest of her life. Even though she was based in France, she became active in doing what she could for the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, refusing to perform in any establishment that segregated audiences for her American performances. In 1963 she spoke at the March on Washington, along with Martin Luther King, Jr. After King’s assassination, his wife, Coretta Scott King, had asked Baker to take over her husband’s place as the leader of the Civil Rights Movements. Baker declined citing family reasons.
In 1975, Baker suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away at the age of 68 on April 12 in Paris. She was the very first American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral.