The remains of singer, dancer, and civil rights activist Josephine Baker will be reinterred at the Pantheon monument in Paris, making her the first Black woman to be interred there. Interment in the Pantheon is reserved for national figures of historical importance in France. The Paris monument at the moment houses the remains of French philosopher Voltaire, writer Victor Hugo, scientist Marie Curie, French politician Simone Veil, and others.
Baker, who became a French citizen in 1937 and before her death in Paris in 1975, will be the first entertainer to be given a Pantheon burial, according to AP.
The French president is the only one to decide who gets moved to the Paris monument. Baker’s remains, which are buried in Monaco, are getting transferred to the Pantheon following a petition started by writer Laurent Kupferman. The petition to have her interred in the Pantheon caught the attention of French President Emmanuel Macron.
“She was an artist, the first Black international star, a muse of the cubists, a resistance fighter during WWII in the French army, active alongside Martin Luther King in the civil rights fight,” the petition said.
The news about Baker’s remains being transferred was first reported by the Le Parisien newspaper. It said Sunday that Macron decided to organize the ceremony on November 30 at the Paris monument. “This is a great lady, who loved France, who will enter the Pantheon. Thank you to Emmanuel Macron for this tribute,” French minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher wrote on Twitter following news of the decision.
Who was Josephine Baker?
She was a world-renowned singer, dancer, and civil rights activist. Baker’s popularity rose during the 1920s for dancing in Paris. Born on 3 June 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker grew up in acute poverty at a time when the so-called Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the American south. At the age of eight, her mother pulled her out of school to work as a domestic servant, cleaning houses and babysitting for rich white families. She also started dancing on the streets in St Louis to make some money.
When she was 13, she got a job as a waitress at The Old Chauffeur’s Club, where she met and married Willie Wells two years later. At the time, she began performing with an African American theatre group, where she performed so well as a dancer in many Vaudeville shows, a popular theatre genre in the 20th century.
From performing in New York City, her achievements eventually took her to Paris, where she instantly became a celebrity, highly sought after due to her distinct dancing style and unique costumes.
Baker also helped the French Resistance during World War II against Nazi Germany. She did this by passing on secrets she heard while performing in front of the enemy. She wrote down confidential information with invisible ink on music sheets and transported them to the French.
When World War II ended, Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French military and was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour: these were France’s highest military honors.
During the 1950s, Baker returned to the United States and joined the first all-black Broadway musical.
In spite of her successes, Baker faced racial abuse from the press. She subsequently refused to perform at segregated clubs and concert venues, arguing that if African Americans could not attend her shows, she would not perform. Her strong opposition to segregation and discrimination was recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Baker went on to fight racial injustices into the 1970s. Throughout her career, she adopted 13 children from various countries and called her family “the rainbow tribe.” She took these children along with her for shows to show the world that racial and cultural harmony was possible.
In 1975, Baker performed on stage for the last time and received a standing ovation. On April 12, 1975, Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Over 20,000 people came to the streets in Paris for her funeral procession. The French Government honored her with a 21-gun salute.