Josephine Baker: beloved performer and activist

“I believe in action. … I believe in doing rather than talking. All my life I have maintained that the people of the world can learn to live together in peace if they are not brought up in prejudice. This is why I traveled all over the world to adopt 11 youngsters.”

– Josephine Baker 

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker

Biography of 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 and much strife during her childhood. She dropped out of school at twelve and spent time living in cardboard shelters in the slums while dancing to earn money. And at thirteen years old, she got married, though they divorced less than a year later. About a year after that, Josephine married once again.

As she balanced her marriage life and earning money, an interest in a performing career arose. She pestered a show manager for a role in a New York vaudeville act, and with that, her entertainment career began.

New York marked her start. But after a second divorce and tired of racism in America, Josephine moved to Paris. In Paris, she thrived, finding much success in her dance performance. And it was also while living in Europe that Josephine evolved her artistic career into singing and acting.

Josephine Baker dancing, Paris, 1926
Josephine Baker in Paris, 1926

The mid-1930s marked a time of new tensions in Europe. Yet, Josephine chose to stay. And when World War II involved France, she joined the French Military Intelligence Agency.

In her role with the agency, she used her entertainer status to travel around Europe. And with charm, she engaged others, collecting valuable information, often keeping 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 the NAACP, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, and refused to perform in segregated venues – a stance that helped drive integration. And during her years of working in the Civil Rights movement, Josephine began adopting children, calling her family the “Rainbow Tribe,” as her children were of different races and ethnicities.

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


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Click here to read a snapshot biography of another performer, Bessie Smith.

“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 / Jo Baker helps civil rights groups : Renowned star ‘deeply concerned’, Jet Vol. 25, No. 19 (27 February 1964), p. 60 – Wikiquote / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution – NPG.95.105

To cite:

“Josephine Baker: beloved performer and activist”. Historical Snapshots.