Josephine Baker (June 3, 1906-April 12, 1975): Singer, Dancer, Actress, WWII Spy, and Civil Rights Activist

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This is Josephine Baker. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3, 1906, she grew up in poverty. Her mother, Carrie McDonald was a washerwoman and her father, Eddie Carson was a vaudeville drummer who abandoned Carrie and Josephine shortly after Josephine was born. Josephine’s mother remarried shortly afterwards and gave birth to several more children.

As a young child, Josephine worked as a maid and babysitter to wealthy white families while enduring abusive treatment. For a short while, Josephine returned to school, but ran away at age 13 and found work as a club waitress. While working there, she met and married Willie Wells. The marriage ended in divorce a few weeks later. At 15, she was recruited for the St. Louis Vaudeville show due to her skills as a street-corner dancer. She was said to be the “highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville.”

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Josephine began to dance, performing in clubs and in the streets. By 1919, she was touring the country with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers performing comedic skits. Josephine married William Baker in 1921 whose named she would keep throughout her life, even when they divorce. Josephine found a role in the musical Shuffle Along (1921) as a chorus member and the humor she added made her popular with audiences. Wanting to advance her career, Josephine relocated to New York City. She landed a role in Chocolate Dandies (1924) and performed with Ethel waters on the floor at the Plantation Club where she again became popular with the audience.

Baker_Banana_2Josephine traveled to Paris, France in 1925 to perform in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She won over French audiences when she performed the Dance Sauvage with partner Joe Alec, wearing only a skirt made of feathers. She became famous for her erotic almost nude dance style. Around this time she had an extramarital affair with Belgian novelist Georges Simenon. In 1926, Josephine’s career skyrocketed when she performed La Folie de Jour in which she wore her famous 16-piece banana skirt. Parisian audiences loved the show, soon making Josephine the most popular and highest paid performer in Europe. She earned the nicknames “Black Pearl,”  “Black Venus,” and “Creole Goddess.” She also won the admiration of cultural figures such as Pablo Picasso, E.E. Cummings, and Earnest Hemingway and she received more than 1,000 marriage proposals and expensive gifts. She was the first Black Woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou (1934) and to become an international star. Some of her other well known performances were Exposition des Arts Decoratifs (1925), films Siren of the Tropics (1927), Princesse Tam Tam (1935), and Fausse Alert (1940). She was often accompanied on stage with her pet Cheetah named Chiquita who wore a diamond collar. Her most successful and famous song J’ai deux amours (1931) inspired many poets, painters, and authors.

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Josephine visited the United States around 1935-36 and received a cold welcome. White American audiences did not want to see a Black Woman as sexual, sensual, and sophisticated as she. Her role in Ziegfeld Follies generated poor box office numbers and Time magazine called her a “Negro wench.” She never attained the popularity in the U.S. as she had in France. In 1937, Josephine became a citizen of France and denounced her American citizenship because of the rampant racism and cold welcome she received during her visit. She was fluent in both English and French. Around this time she married Jewish Frenchman Jean Lion. She and Jean separated a few years before he passed away and in 1947 she married Jo Bouillon. She was unable to have her own biological children due to several miscarriages, so she adopted 12 children of different racial backgrounds in which she called, “The Rainbow Tribe.” They were: two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara. Josephine, Jo, the children and the staff all lived in her Chateau de Milanes in Dordogne, France.

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Aside from singing, dancing, and acting, Josephine was involved in civic activities and civil rights activism.  During WWII she was enlisted by the Deuxieme Bureau, the French Military Intelligence to become an “honorable correspondent.” She served with the French Red Cross and as an active member of the French resistance movement, a group of individuals who helped to win the war against Nazi Germany with undercover work. Using her career as an entertainer as a cover, she carried secret messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music. After the war, Josephine  was awarded the highest honor, the Croix de guerre, the Rosette de la Resistance in 1946, and was made Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur by French President Charles de Gaulle.

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She was a staunch supporter of the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. On a trip to New York she and husband Jo were denied reservations at 36 hotels because of her race. Furious by the treatment, she wrote several articles about segregation and traveled to the South to Nashville. Tennessee where she spoke at the HBCU Fisk University on the subject of “France, North Africa, and the Equality of Races in France.” Josephine also refused to perform before segregated audiences. She turned down an offer of $10,000 at a Miami club due to segregated audience policies; afterwards the club met her demands. Her insistence to perform for integrated audiences helped to breakdown segregation during shows in Las Vegas, Nevada one of the most segregated cities in America at the time. She received death threats from the KKK, but said she was not afraid of them.

Josephine made charges of racism against Manhattan’s Sherman Billingsley Stork Club because she was refused service. She also worked with the NAACP. For her hard civil rights crusading, the NAACP awarded her life membership by Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Ralph Bunch and May 20, 1951 was declared Josephine Baker Day. These honors spurred her to further crusading, involving herself in “Save Willie McGee” rally and the 1948 beating of an unarmed shop owner in Trenton, New Jersey. She became increasingly regarded as controversial and many blacks began to shun her fearing she would harm their cause. Josephine spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only official woman speaker. She wore her Free French uniform with her medal and introduced “Negro Women of Civil Rights” Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates, and others who gave brief speeches. After Dr. King’s assassination, Josephine was asked by Dr. King’s widow, Coretta in the Netherlands to take Dr. King’s place as leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. After much thought, Josephine declined saying “her children were too young to lose their mother.”

In 1964, Josephine lost her castle home because of unpaid debt. Afterwards, Princess Grace of Monaco offered her an apartment in Roquebrune. She then returned to the stage which would be some of her last performances: the Olympia in Paris, 1968, Belgrade, 1973, Carnegie Hall, 1973, the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium, 1974, and the Gala du Cirque in Paris, 1974. On April  8, 1975, Josephine starred in her final performance Josephine a Bobino, a retrospective review, celebrating her 50 years in show business. The revue was financed by Prince Rainier, Prince Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and opened with rave reviews. The opening night was spectacular and was a full house such that fold out chairs had to be put out to accommodate standing spectators. Among the guests were Sophia Loren, Diana Ross, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, and Liza Minnelli. Josephine was lying in her bed peacefully four days later recovering from a coma brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage. She was surrounded by newspapers reports of her excellent performance. On April 12, 1975, Josephine was taken to the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital where she passed away at age 68.

Earnest Hemingway said:

Josephine, is the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.

Shirley Bassey, who cited Josephine as her primary influence said:

 “… she went from a ‘petite danseuse sauvage’ with a decent voice to ‘la grande diva magnifique’… I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer.

Josephine received many honors posthumously. She was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians on March 29, 1995, Place Josephine Baker located  in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris , a swimming pool, the Piscine Josephine Baker on the Seine River in Paris are all named in her honor. Darren Royston, writer for the BBC-online and historical dance teacher credited Josephine as being “the Beyoncé of her day and bringing the Charleston to Britain.” Her sons Jean-Claude and Jerry owned and operated a restaurant in New York, Chez Josephine, celebrating her life and works. Her family home the Chateau de Milandes is opened to the public for tours displaying her banana skirts and other stage costumes, family photos, documents, and her awards.

In 1991, Lynn Whitfield portrayed Josephine Baker in the HBO Biopic, The Josephine Baker Story.

Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker
Lynn Whitfield as Josephine Baker

I salute this AMAZING Her-story making sista!

Sources

“Josephine Baker.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 03 May 2015.

“Josephine Baker Bio and Photos.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Baker

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