Black History Month: Josephine Baker

By: Lydia Reagan ~Feature Editor~

1Josephine Baker was born as Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3, 1903. Born into a working class family, she grew up cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families. At 13, she began waitressing at a club. In 1919, she toured the U.S. with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers.

She worked as a dresser on Shuffle Along and learned all the choreography, so she was the obvious choice to replace the dancer who left. She had moderate success in New York after that, but she really took off after she moved to Paris and starred in La Revue Negre.

She enjoyed an immense amount of success in Europe but was still ostracized by her home country. Throughout World War II, she performed for French troops, was an honorable correspondent for the French Resistance and worked as a sub-lieutenant in the Womens Auxiliary Air Force.

Baker returned to the U.S. throughout the 50’s and 60’s, determined to fight racism. She also adopted many children of different ethnicities; their family was called “the Rainbow Tribe.”

Throughout her life, she was married and divorced three times. Baker never allowed herself to be defined by her relationships and was quick to end anything she didn’t like.

She traveled the U.S., bringing her children with her, fighting racism in any way that she could. On April 8, 1975, she relaunched her entertainment career and received glowing reviews. However, only days later, she slipped into a coma and died of cerebral hemorrhage on April 12.

Her funeral procession took place in France, and more than 200,000 people showed up to pay their respects. She was the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors.

Baker left behind a huge legacy. The NAACP officially declared May 20 as “Josephine Baker Day” to honor her efforts in the March on Washington in 1963. The French government awarded her the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest honors.

“The things we truly
love stay with us
always, locked in
our hearts as long
as life remains.”
                            —Josephine Baker