She was a world-renowned singer, dancer, and civil rights activist. Josephine 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.
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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 honours.
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).
In 1963, Baker participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where she was allowed to give a speech.
“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you 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,” she said in a speech, which touched on her life as a black woman in the United States and abroad.
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 haemorrhage. Over 20,000 people came to the streets in Paris for her funeral procession.
The French Government honoured her with a 21-gun salute.