Josephine Baker: A biography

By: Reagan Welch

Josephine Baker is a name you’ve probably never heard, but it should be. Baker was a performer, mother, civil rights activist, and spy for the Allies during World War II.

Intrigued yet? I thought so.

Let’s start with her childhood. Freda Josephine MacDonald was born on June 3rd, 1906 to a single mother in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up very poor, and had to drop out of school at age 8, becoming a servant for a white family.

She was very passionate about dancing, so she performed on street corners for extra money. There, she caught the attention of a theatre troupe, who hired her. She gained her fame by performing in the Broadway show ‘Chocolate Dandies’.

While living in New York, she married a man named Willie Baker, whom she later divorced, but kept his last name, therefore becoming Josephine Baker.

In 1925, she moved to Paris and became a star there, where she was known for her flamboyance. In one of her most famous performances, she wore a skirt made of bananas. She also owned a pet cheetah named Chiquita, and went on to star in French films.

When World War II began, Baker enlisted as a spy for the French military. She kept performing, and was invited to many parties. She would flirt with generals of the Axis powers to coax information out of them. After that, she would write the information in invisible ink on her sheet music. If she found crucial photos, she would pin them to her underclothes, depending on her stardom to keep from being strip-searched.

After the war ended, Baker returned to the United States for a tour. She faced lots of racism, with as many as 36 hotels forbidding her to perform. Eventually, she sat down on stage and refused to leave until the hotel’s manager finally gave in.

She became heavily involved in the civil rights movement. She was the only woman to speak in the March on Washington. When Martin Luther King Jr. died, she was asked by his wife to lead the movement. Baker declined, as she had 12 adopted children at home. She called them her “rainbow tribe,” as they were from all different ethnic backgrounds. The NAACP named her Woman of the Year, and a parade was held in her honor.

In 1975, Josephine Baker performed in her last show. Three days after opening night, she died of a cranial hemorrhage. She was buried in France with a 21-gun-salute, and over 200,000 people came to her funeral.

Though she may have passed away, her legacy lives on. The NAACP declared May 20th “Josephine Baker Day”. Beyoncé has said in an interview that Baker is an inspiration to her.

Josephine Baker accomplished many wonderful things in her life, and should be talked about more often.

If you’d like to learn more, PBS released a documentary about her life titled ‘Josephine Baker: The Story Of An Awakening’

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