Josephine Baker, also known as the “Black Pearl,” “Bronze Venus,” and “Creole Goddess,” was the epitome of a starlet. As the first African American woman to appear in a motion picture, she captivated audiences with her elegant dancing, magnetic personality, and sultry voice. Beyond her role as an entertainer, Baker was a heroine who risked her livelihood to assist others who were persecuted by despotic regimes. By virtue of her valor, Baker forged an indelible legacy as a devoted humanitarian, an intelligence liaison and ambulance driver for the French Resistance during World War II, and a Civil Rights activist.
Baker, whose birth name was Freda Josephine McDonald, grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and encountered hardships at an early age. Her father was a vaudeville drummer, but he abandoned the family shortly after she was born. As a child, Baker worked as a maid and later as a waitress to help support her family. When she was just eleven years old, she witnessed the East St. Louis race riot of 1917, which was regarded as one of the bloodiest race riots in the 20th century. As racial tensions erupted, white mobs burned down homes of African Americans and brutally beat, shot, and lynched African American men, women, and children while police officers fled and ignored pleas for help. The massacre of innocent African Americans traumatized Baker and gave her an early introduction to the horrors of racism in the United States of America.
By the time she was twelve, Baker dropped out of school, and later ran away from home. She worked as a waitress to support herself, but struggled to find her path in life. In her bleakest moments, Baker had to resort to eating food from garbage cans just to survive. Lacking a formal education and making only meager wages, hope seemed all but lost. Fortunately, she was able to reverse her fortunes when she encountered a group of street performers known as the Jones Family Band. Baker was always fond of dancing, and she saw this as an opportunity to escape her plight. She joined the Jones Family Band and landed her first appearance on stage at the Booker T. Washington Theater, a black vaudeville house in St. Louis. Baker was a true prodigy and later became a member of the all-black traveling troupe the Dixie Steppers at the request of the group’s manager. Initially, she worked behind the scenes as a dresser for the Dixie Steppers, but she learned all of the dances and songs as she waited for her chance to shine.
When one of the group’s members became ill, Baker replaced her and dazzled the audience which led her to perform at the Plantation Club in Harlem. While performing in this venue, Baker caught the attention of producer Caroline Dudley who was looking for a new performer to add to her revue, La Revue Nègre, which she was planning to take on tour in France. Baker agreed to join the revue and embarked on a prolific career from that point forward. In France, Baker was an alluring beauty that intrigued crowds with her seductive and risqué performances. At the cabaret music hall Folies Bergère, she performed in the revue La Folie du Jour while wearing nothing but a skirt made out of artificial bananas. Baker would go on to enjoy even greater success and appear in three films: Siren of the Tropics, Zouzou, and Princesse Tam Tam.
As a resident of France, Baker enjoyed a level of prosperity and freedom that she could never have experienced in America. She became enamored of the country and made it her permanent home. Her skin color was not a hindrance or a burden, and she flourished as an entertainer. However, Baker wanted to also showcase her talents in America in order to serve as a role model for African Americans. In 1935, she returned to America to prepare for her performance in the musical revue, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. In stark contrast to the warm receptions she was accustomed to in France, American audiences despised Baker because she did not portray the subservient roles that were propagated in American media. Adding further insult, The New York Times labeled her a “Negro wench,” which encapsulated the mentality of bigoted Americans. Despite her beauty, grace, and success, Baker was still viewed and treated as an inferior being in her own native country. Lamenting the hypocrisy of America, Baker once wrote, “It [the Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty, the freedom to go where one chose, if one was held back by one’s color? No, I preferred the Eiffel Tower, which made no promises.”
After suffering ridicule and the vitriol of racism, Baker was crestfallen, and she returned to France. Although she was vilified in America, she was venerated in her adopted nation. Instead of succumbing to hatred, Baker remained resilient and courageously served France under the most hostile conditions. When France declared war on Germany during World War II, she joined the French military intelligence agency Deuxième Bureau. As an intelligence liaison, Baker obtained secret information about German troops and other Axis officials by attending parties and conducting subtle interrogations under the guise of gossip. Putting her own life at risk, Baker also obtained false documents for members of the French Resistance as well as visas and passports for Jewish citizens who needed to flee the country. In addition, she smuggled secret information, which was written in invisible ink on her music sheets, and relayed messages from France to Morocco and Spain by concealing them in her underwear. For her efforts, Baker was made a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force, she received the Croix de Guerre and Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
Following World War II, Baker continued to demonstrate her humanitarianism by adopting twelve children from various ethnicities and nationalities, which she referred to as her “Rainbow Tribe.” As a war hero and a devoted mother, Baker wanted bring true equality to all members of society. During the 1950s and 1960s, she supported and became active in the Civil Rights Movement. When she briefly returned to the United States, Baker insisted on having a nondiscrimination clause in her contracts, and only agreed to perform in front of integrated audiences. Whereas Baker was previously dejected by racism, she was now defiant. She refused to kowtow to racial discrimination and provided a voice for those who suffered at the hands of prejudice. Baker also began working closely with the NAACP and the organization named her Most Outstanding Woman of the Year in 1951. The NAACP also declared May 20, 1951 Josephine Baker Day.
Baker continued to show her support for Civil Rights Movement when she attended the March on Washington in 1963 as the only woman speaker. She wore her French Resistance uniform and medal of the Légion d’Honneur while delivering a poignant speech about overcoming racism and instilling younger generations with a sense of pride. “When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away. Eventually I ran far away. It was to a place called France […] It was like a fairyland place […] You know I have always taken the rocky path […] I took that rocky path, and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had. But I do not want you to have to run away to get it. And mothers and fathers, if it is too late for you, think of your children. Make it safe here so they do not have to run away, for I want for you and your children what I had.”
Several months after the March on Washington, Baker sent a heartfelt letter to Dr. King expressing her desire to continue offering support to the Civil Rights Movement. “I want you to know that I am, as ever, at your disposal concerning the Civil Rights campaign. We cannot stop now—on the contrary, we must double our efforts […] We are not at the end of our tribulations, but so long as we are united we will succeed. Remember than [sic] unity is our greatest strength—without it there cannot be a solid victory.”
Josephine Baker was an incredible woman with a sense of purpose and incomparable integrity. While her accomplishments as a performer are certainly noteworthy, her ability to stand strong in the face of peril was inspirational. She could have easily hid behind her celebrity, but she instead used it as a platform to denounce and combat atrocities committed by insidious individuals. While times have improved drastically in America, prejudice still exists and we must continue to fight for equality. Celebrities and entertainers have unimaginable influence, and they should take a cue from Josephine Baker by using their voices to usher in even greater social change.