Josephine Baker: beloved performer and activist

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was described as “The most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will.” 

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Josephine experienced poverty in childhood, living in cardboard shelters in the slums and dancing on the street to make money. However, the street dancing turned into performing in a vaudeville act, as she pestered a show manager for a role. For that show, she traveled to New York, and her career had begun. 

While performing in New York was a good start, her big break came in Paris, where she moved in her late teens to leave the racism of America. In Paris, she thrived. Her dancing life found much success. And it was also while living in Europe that Josephine evolved her artistic career into singing and acting.

Josephine continued to live in Europe. Even as World War II involved France, she chose to stay, joining the French Military Intelligence Agency. Using her entertainer status to travel around Europe and charm in engaging with others, Josephine collected information in her role. She kept the notes in invisible ink on sheet music. 

After the war, Josephine took a more active role in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. She wrote articles about segregation, worked closely with NAACP, spoke the 1963 March on Washington, and refused to perform in segregated venues – a stance that helped drive integration. It was also during her years of working in the Civil Rights movement that Josephine began adopting children, calling her family the “Rainbow Tribe,” as her children were of different races and ethnicities.

Josephine passed away in 1975. France honored her with a state funeral. She is the only American-born woman to receive this honor.

“Josephine Baker: beloved performer and activist” sources: “The most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will.” – quote from Ernest Hemingway / Portrait of Josephine Baker taken in 1940 / Studio Harcourt / Wikimedia Commons