Josephine Baker sashayed onto a Paris stage during the 1920s with a comic, yet sensual appeal that took Europe by storm. Famous for barely-there dresses and no-holds-barred dance routines, her exotic beauty generated nicknames "Black Venus," "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess." Admirers bestowed a plethora of gifts, including diamonds and cars, and she received approximately 1,500 marriage proposals. She maintained energetic performances and a celebrity status for 50 years until her death in 1975. Unfortunately, racism prevented her talents from being wholly accepted in the United States until 1973.

She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906 to washerwoman Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Eddie abandoned them shortly afterward, and Carrie married a kind but perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin. Their family eventually grew to include a son and two more daughters.

Josephine grew up cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families who reminded her "be sure not to kiss the baby." She got a job waitressing at The Old Chauffeur's Club when she was 13 years old. While waiting tables she met and had a brief marriage to Willie Wells. While it was unusual for a woman during her era, Josephine never depended on a man for financial support. Therefore, she never hesitated to leave when a relationship soured. She was married and divorced three more times, to American Willie Baker in 1921 (whose last name she chose to keep), Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937 (from whom she attained French citizenship) and French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947 (who helped to raise her 12 adopted children).

Josephine toured the United States with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919, performing various comical skits. When the troupes split, she tried to advance as a chorus girl for The Dixie Steppers in Sissle and Blake's production Shuffle Along. She was rejected because she was "too skinny and too dark." Undeterred, she learned the chorus line's routines while working as a dresser. Thus, Josephine was the obvious replacement when a dancer left. Onstage she rolled her eyes and purposely acted clumsy. The audience loved her comedic touch, and Josephine was a box office draw for the rest of the show's run

She enjoyed moderate success at The Plantation Club in New York afterShuffle Along. However, when Josephine traveled to Paris for a new venture, La Revue Nègre, it proved to be a turning point in her career. Amongst a compilation of acts, Josephine and dance partner Joe Alex captivated the audience with the Danse Sauvage. Everything about the routine was new and exotic, and Josephine, boldly dressed in nothing but a feather skirt, worked the audience into frenzy with her uninhibited movements. She was an overnight sensation.

Josephine's immense popularity afforded her a comfortable salary, which she spent mostly on clothes, jewelry and pets. She loved animals, and at one time she owned a leopard (Chiquita), a chimpanzee (Ethel), a pig (Albert), a snake (Kiki), a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish, three cats and seven dogs.

Her career thrived in the integrated Paris society; when La Revue Nègreclosed, Josephine starred in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater. Her jaw-dropping performance, including a costume of 16 bananas strung into a skirt, cemented her celebrity status. Josephine rivaled Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford as the most photographed woman in the world, and by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. She starred in two movies in the early 1930s, Zou-Zou andPrincess Tam-Tam, and moved her family from St. Louis to Les Milandes, her estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, France.

A 1936 return to the United States to star in the Ziegfield Follies proved disastrous, despite the fact that she was a major celebrity in Europe. American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power, newspaper reviews were equally cruel (The New York Times called her a "Negro wench"), and Josephine returned to Europe heartbroken.

Josephine served France during World War II in several ways. She performed for the troops, and was an honorable correspondent for the French Resistance (undercover work included smuggling secret messages written on her music sheets) and a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She was later awarded the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government for hard work and dedication.

Josephine visited the United States during the 50s and 60s with renewed vigor to fight racism. When New York's popular Stork Club refused her service, she engaged a head-on media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts.

It was also during this time that she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as "The Rainbow Tribe." Josephine wanted her to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers." She often took the children with her cross-country, and when they were at Les Milandes tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in "The Rainbow Tribe" were.

Josephine continued to travel to the United States, and during her visits she developed a close friendship with American artist Robert Brady. Now divorced from her fourth husband Jo Bouillon, she was looking for companionship on a more platonic level. Brady felt the same, and on a trip to Acapulco, Mexico in September 1973 they went to an empty church and exchanged marriage vows. Though no clergy was present, and they were never legally joined, it was an important personal bond that she and Brady maintained the rest of her life. Josephine told very few people about the pseudo marriage, fearing the press would ridicule it.

Josephine agreed to perform at New York's Carnegie Hall that same year. Due to previous experience, she was nervous about how the audience and critics would receive her. This time, however, cultural and racial growth was evident. Josephine received a standing ovation before the concert even began. The enthusiastic welcome was so touching that she wept onstage.

On April 8, 1975 Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50 year career. The reviews were among her best ever. Days later, however, Josephine slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 5 a.m. on April 12.

More than 20,000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch the funeral procession on its way to the Church of the Madeleine. The French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried in France with military honors. Her gravesite is in the Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco.

Josephine Baker has continued to intrigue and inspire people throughout the world. In 1991, HBO released The Josephine Baker Story. The film garnered five Emmy Awards. The film also won one of the three Golden Globes the film was nominated for that season.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker spent her youth in poverty before learning to dance and finding success on Broadway. In the 1920s she moved to France and soon became one of Europe's most popular and highest-paid performers. She worked for the French Resistance during World War II, and during the 1950s and '60s devoted herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States. After beginning her comeback to the stage in 1973, Josephine Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, and was buried with military honors. t was also around this time that Josephine first took up dancing, honing her skills both in clubs and in street performances, and by 1919 she was touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers performing comedic skits. In 1921, Josephine married a man named Willie Baker, whose name she would keep for the rest of her life despite their divorce years later. In 1923, Baker landed a role in the musical Shuffle Alongas a member of the chorus, and the comic touch that she brought to the part made her popular with audiences. Looking to parlay these early successes, Baker moved to New York City and was soon performing in Chocolate Dandies and, along with Ethel Waters, in the floor show of the Plantation Club, where again she quickly became a crowd favorite.

In 1925, at the peak of France’s obsession with American jazz and all things exotic, Baker traveled to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She made an immediate impression on French audiences when, with dance partner Joe Alex, she performed the Danse Sauvage, in which she wore only a feather skirt.

In 1936, riding the wave of popularity she was enjoying in France, Baker returned to the United States to perform in the Ziegfield Follies, hoping to establish herself as a performer in her home country as well. However, she was met with a generally hostile, racist reaction and quickly returned to France, crestfallen at her mistreatment. Upon her return, Baker married French industrialist Jean Lion and obtained citizenship from the country that had embraced her as one of its own. During the 1950s, Baker frequently returned to the United States to lend her support to the Civil Rights Movement, participating in demonstrations and boycotting segregated clubs and concert venues. In 1963, Baker participated, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., in the March on Washington, and was among the many notable speakers that day. In honor of her efforts, the NAACP eventually named May 20th “Josephine Baker Day.”

March on Washington for Jobs, Justice and Freedom. Most are not aware, but on that hot summer day in 1963, only onewoman addressed the crowd. Her name was Josephine Baker.

Two women, Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson, sang. But Josephine Baker spoke for more than 20 minutes,

Baker’s presence and comments spoke to the lived experiences of millions of Black women who sat, and still do, at the intersection of individual freedom and civil rights for the broader community.

Josephine Baker was an international superstar before the likes of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Beyoncé, rising to fame during the 1920’s and 30’s in Paris, France. Once homeless, she managed to enter the world of vaudeville and ultimately perform in Paris, France. She was one of the first African American women to star in a major motion picture and helped integrate the American stage. Her most notable costume is a skirt made of artificial bananas and she often performed on the Parisian stage with her pet cheetah, Chiquita. She accomplished much off stage as well. During World War II she served as a spy for the French Resistance and was later awarded a military honor. She adopted 12 children from around the world and named them her Rainbow Tribe.

In 1963, she was 57 years old when she stepped up to the podium in her French Resistance uniform from the war. She did so not as a superstar, but as a woman who had seen a glimpse of the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently spoke about. Though not a public speaker, she articulated her journey as a woman and vision for a new world that could exist for African Americans. She knew far too well the challenges of women within the African American community — and managed to bridge the unique experiences of black women who sought bodily autonomy, security, and happiness within a community seeking full citizenship under the law. Her speech was pivotal as she specifically defined civil rights through the eyes of a woman who had known both oppression and freedom. Baker also represented the legacy of black women seeking to balance their individual struggles with uplifting the entire community. This holds true for women of color seeking justice for a new generation.

Like many women at the turn of the Century, she was silenced. While the Civil Rights movement was centered on all citizens having the access to public facilities, public education, and the right to vote, the denial of such right had very private and terrifying consequences for Black women whose work often forced them into the private spaces of America as domestic workers, cooks, and maids. Backlash in these spaces were far more terrifying than being forced to ride in the back of the bus or to drink from a “coloreds only” fountain. In comparison to the narrative of the broader movement, like “I am a man,” these stories were minimized as a part of the struggle for economic and political freedom.


Dignity and respect must be applied to the personal sphere, not just public places.

Her experience returning to the United States after being abroad brought great pain as she realized quickly that very little had changed. The lack of dignity and respect she received privately, despite her success, were just as bitter as public attempts to dehumanize her. Baker recalled her return trip on a cruise ship when a white actress refused to have dinner with her: “A very important star was to sit with me for dinner, and at the last moment I discovered she didn’t want to eat with a colored woman.”

Bodily autonomy and self-determination are not just about reproduction or parenting, but it is evident in simply being recognized as a human being and having mobility to access coffee, dinner, and friendship when and where one chooses.

A new world requires a clear vision, not just the absence of injustice.

She detailed the immense freedom she experienced living abroad in France: “I could go into any restaurant I wanted to, and I could drink water anyplace I wanted to, and I didn’t have to go to a colored toilet either, and I have to tell you it was nice, and I got used to it, and I liked it, and I wasn’t afraid anymore that someone would shout at me.”

Like most African Americans, Baker knew another America was possible but a new and high expectation needed to be described and reinforced. Like Dr. King, she had a dream that was free from fear but also allowed her to pursue her dreams and happiness on equal footing. She goes on to say: “I was happy, and because I was happy I had some success, and you know that too.”

“You must go to school, and you must learn to protect yourself. And you must learn to protect yourself with the pen, and not the gun. Then you can answer them, and I can tell you — and I don’t want to sound corny — but friends, the pen really is mightier than the sword.”

Encouraging future generations to embrace education and future struggles associated with civil rights rounded out Baker’s speech. She wanted to inspire the next generation to carry on the legacy of the civil rights movement, but recognized that role of civil rights would play a role in advancing education, healthcare, and women’s rights. And while future generations might approach it differently, they had to continue the fight for freedom.


While reproductive freedom and women’s rights were not explicitly a part of Baker’s short speech, she effectively lifted up the experiences of the average women. Her commitment to the continued struggle honored millions of women who experiences were often relegated as secondary to the needs of the Civil Rights movement. Few had neither the opportunity to step into the limelight of the movement nor the power to escape the grips of segregation in the same way Baker did, but her presence lifted millions of women to the main stage, the same way her works had done decades before. Her legacy — and those of the countless women, who marched, organized and sacrificed for civil rights — stays with us today, as women continue to fight for equal rights and social justice.

Our guest blogger is Heidi Williamson, a Senior Policy Analyst for the Women’s Health and Rights program at the Center for American Progress.

And yet, there is something enchanting about Baker’s speech, about her oft-repeated life story: a poor, segregated childhood; an escape to France where race relations were years ahead of those in the United States; her adoption of the “Rainbow Tribe,” a social project/family of a dozen ethnically diverse children. She spoke for 20 minutes.

“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. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world. . . .

“I am not a young woman now, friends. My life is behind me. There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light the fire in you.”

Josephine Baker’s accomplishments are almost too numerous to list them all: The American-French singer, dancer, and actress was the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become the first world-famous entertainer. She also was a member of the French resistance against the Germans and a political icon of the civil rights movement in the US, going so far that after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. his widow, Coretta Scott King (who will get her own entry) offered Josephine Baker the unofficial leadership of the movement.

Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, into a family of French, African-American, Native-American, and Jewish decent. At age 12 Baker had to drop out of school to work full-time under such ghastly conditions that she chose to rather be homeless. For three years she lived in the slums of St. Louis earning money by dancing on street corners. Apparently her talent was noticed and she joined a vaudeville troop, which ultimately brought her to New York during the height of the so-called Harlem Renaissance. In New York her career started to take off and Baker started performing on Broadway as a dancer and singer. Her dancing and singing was noticed by talent agents of the time and lead to her being invited to France to open at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées in 1925. There she started an erotic one-woman show that soon became world-famous. She toured Western Europe with her show and was a success in every country.

Baker was the most successful American entertainer outside of the USA in the 1920s and early 30s. She took roles in European movies and also in 1934 starred in an Offenbach opera performed at the most prestigious opera house in Paris. Contemporary artists and celebrities like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior flocked around her all attesting to her beauty and talent.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 and German forces subsequently occupied France in 1940, Josephine Baker immediately volunteered to spy and work for the French resistance. She helped the cause of the French resistance by attending parties together with high-ranking Axis officials and through subtle interrogations disguised as gossiping she learned of important details of Axis policy in France and all of Europe, which she immediately passed on to her contacts in the resistance.

She also used her status as a celebrity to get false documents for members of the resistance and Jews who needed to flee France for fear of being deported to one of the camps. She also smuggled important information and messages from France to Morocco or Spain by hiding the messages in her underwear, again relying on her celebrity status to avoid strip searches.

When she relocated definitely to Morocco in 1942 she began to entertain French colonial troops urging them to join the forces of the Free France government in London and not serving the Vichy government that was in bed with the Germans with quite a degree of success. One of the first things she did after the war in Europe ended was to visit the freshly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp where she spontaneously put on a performance for the recently liberated former inmates there much to their enjoyment according to British and American eyewitnesses.

After the war Baker became the first American woman to receive three of the highest honors of the French state, the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Resistance, and being made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur; all given to her by Charles de Gaulle personally.

In the 1950s Josephine Baker became very active in the American civil rights movement. Not only did she protest racism by adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans as her legal children, she also forced clubs, theaters, opera houses and other cultural venues to open themselves to an integrated audience by either refusing to perform there or by simply buying the establishment and changing the audience guidelines. She also started working closely with the NAACP using her wealth and fame to bring attention and fight for their cause. This lead to her being the only official female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. She spoke at the side of Martin Luther King Jr. wearing her Free French army uniform and her medals. Baker used this opportunity to introduce the “Negro Women for Civil Rights” and brought Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates to the stage to give brief speeches.

By 1968 Baker had become a true icon of the civil rights movement in the US and despite her still living in France at the time Coretta Scott King approached her after Martin Luther King’s assassination and offered her the unofficial leadership of the movement. After careful deliberation Josephine Baker refused, mainly because of her young children.

As for her personal life, Baker was married several times, had never any children that were not adopted due to health reasons, and according to the biography one of her sons wrote about her was bisexual, having had affairs with several women among them Frida Kahlo.

Josephine Baker died at age 68 in Paris where she was the first American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral. She has several places in France and the US named after her and can be remembered as one of the most outstanding women of her time in show-buisness, paving the way for African-American women, an important civil-rights activist, and a fighter against racism, inequality, injustice, and the terrible German Nazi regime.

u Josephine Baker arrived in Paris on September 25, 1925. On October 2, 1925 Josephine was introduced to Paris in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées. Josephine was the “first star to sing and dance and also appear half naked” (Wood 79). At the same time French people were unsure of whether to be in awe or disgust of her savage dancing that involved “unbridled sexuality” (Wood 84). This was rather risqué at the time because only the dancers in the chorus line were bare-chested; Josephine made her mark as the first star of a show to dance naked. This musical launched her into fame due to her unique form of dancing and the humor and life she put into her movements. Ultimately French people embraced Josephine because she fit their “imaginary black ideal”, and she became a success (Wood 85). Josephine left La Revue Nègre to join La Folie Du Jour in 1926. During this show she first wore her soon-to-be iconic banana skirts (Rosette 287). Josephine was a success in the shows she performed in, and she soon branched out into other forms of entertainment. Josephine never achieved the same level of success in the United States as she did in France. This was in part due to the racism that was rampant throughout the nation. In Paris, Josephine enjoyed life without racial discrimination. Although she had been told of the racial equality in France, she was still surprised when she arrived and received a warm welcome from the citizens. Here she was treated equally, and due to the extreme racial inequality she faced in both St. Louis and New York, Paris was a welcome change. She also was in Paris when Parisian interest in blacks was at an all-time high. This was in part due to Parisians interest in black culture. In Paris, people were more willing to give her chances that she was not likely to have received had she been in the U.S. This also explains why she branched out into other forms of entertainment.

Josephine Baker went to Paris with a dream, and she worked hard to achieve the life she wanted for herself. She grew up with dance and music as her escape from her reality. She used the drive and determination she was forced to have as a kid, and worked hard to reach all of the goals she set for herself. Her life in Paris was a stark contrast to the life she had growing up in the United States. Life in Paris inspired her to work for racial equality, and she remained steadfast in her beliefs. Paris is where Josephine Baker was allowed to be free and do what she wanted, and she excelled in all that she did. Josephine Baker was an extremely talented dancer, but she did so much more than simply dance around the stage in a banana skirt.

Works Cited

Baker, Jean-Cluade, and Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House, 1993. Book.

Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. Josephine Baker in art and life: The Icon and the Image. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Book.

Wood, Ean. The Josephine Baker Story. London: Sanctuary Publishing Limited, 2000. Book.

Wearing nothing but a skirt of bananas Baker came to symbolise the sexual freedom of the jazz age (Wikipedia)

Yet it was the streets that gave life to Baker’s talents, transporting her from a cardboard box in St Louis to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. But the Big Apple wasn’t her final destination. At the age of 19, Baker was spotted by a talent recruiter who was looking for entertainers to perform in a groundbreaking all-black revue in Paris. With a promise of $1,000 a month, Baker headed to France and never looked back.irth of Venus

Baker’s presence on the Parisian entertainment scene was unlike anything that had ever been seen before. On 2 October 1925, she debuted in Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées. Dressed in little more than pearls and feathers, Baker performed her Danse Sauvage to a rapturous audience. The pulsating, gyrating, bare-breasted act sold out night after night, marking the start of France’s love affair with the ‘Bronze Venus’.

“As a black woman, had she stayed in the United States, she could not have accomplished what she did,” says Jules-Rosette.

aker went on to star in four movies: Siren of the Tropics (1927), ZouZou (1934), Princesse Tam Tam (1935) and Fausse Alerte (1940), breaking yet more barriers as a woman of colour.

“She never made a Hollywood film,” says Jules-Rosette. “But at the time she was recording in France, you had the likes of Hattie McDaniel playing maids in Gone With the Wind”

Even though France was home, Baker never truly turned her back on the US. “[She] was among the early path-breakers to use performance celebrity for political ends,” says Jules-Rosette. She traveled back to her homeland to perform on a number of occasions, including in 1951. While others tackled the issue of segregation in the courts, Baker dealt with it head-on. She refused to perform in venues that would not allow a racially mixed audience, even in the deeply divided South. And in Las Vegas, Baker was among the first to break down colour lines, even though history books often ignore her efforts, much to the annoyance of Jules-Rosette: “She was the first person to desegregate the Las Vegas casinos, not Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.”

Baker’s celebrity didn’t mean she was immune to racism. During her 1951 US tour she was refused admission to a number of hotels and restaurants. In one well documented case at the Stork Club in New York City, Baker made charges of racism against the owner for failing to serve her. As a result, she ended up on the FBI watch list and lost her US citizenship rights for over a decade.

With the help of attorney general Robert F Kennedy, Baker finally returned to US soil in 1963 to speak at the March on Washington. Gone were the flamboyant feathers, bold make-up and risqué stage outfits. Instead, Baker took to the stage in her French air force uniform, thick glasses and a loose-curled hairstyle.

“You know I have always taken the rocky path,” Baker told the crowd. “I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, 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. “