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Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was an American-born French dancer and singer who was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. She devoted much of her life to fighting racism and was a vital member of the Civil Rights Movement.

Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. At the age of eight, she had dropped out of school to clean houses and babysit for wealthy white families. Two years later, she returned to school but at thirteen she dropped out for good to become a waitress. Baker also spent some time living on the street, and would earn money dancing on street corners, and by 1919 she was touring the U.S. with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers. In 1923, Baker became a member of the chorus in the musical Shuffle Along, with her comedic role proving popular with audiences.

Baker then moved to New York City, where she performed in the show Chocolate Dandies on Broadway and became a crowd favourite in the floor show of the Plantation Club. In 1925, she travelled to Paris where she performed the Danse Sauvage in only a feather skirt for La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She was an overnight sensation in the integrated Paris society. A year later, she had star billing when she performed in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater wearing a skirt made of 16 bananas. The show was hugely popular, and Baker became one of the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe.

In the early 1930’s, Baker began singing professionally. She then starred in the movies Zou-Zou and Princess Tam Tam, becoming the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. In 1936, Baker returned to the U.S. to star in the Ziegfield Follies. American audiences were unable to accept the fact that they were seeing a sophisticated, powerful black woman and Baker was met with racial discrimination. She returned to France and became a French citizen. During World War II, she served her new country, working with the Red Cross and as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She also became an honourable correspondent for the French Resistance, collecting information about German troops while at parties with officials, and charming Japanese officials and Italian bureaucrats alike into giving her information. She then transporting secret messages on her music sheets, or occasionally in her underwear in addition to performing for the troops. Her efforts led to her being awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest military honours.

During the 1950’s and 60’s, Baker returned to the U.S. to fight against the racist treatment she had been subjected to and to support the growing Civil Rights Movement. In 1951, she successfully fought to desegregate the audience of a nightclub which had invited her to perform and follow this with a national tour. The tour ended with a parade in Harlem in honour of her being named NAACP’s “Woman of the Year”. Her success was short lived, as after Baker was refused service at New York’s Stork Club, she battled against pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell in the media who accused her of being a Communist sympathiser. This led to her work via being revoked, and she was forced to return to France. The NAACP named May 20, 1951, Josephine Baker Day in her honour.

On her later return, she was refused a room at 36 hotels because she was black and her anger passion for Civil Rights grew. Baker travelled to the South to give talks and wrote articles about segregation, she also refused to perform in segregated clubs and concert venues. In 1963, Baker participated in the March on Washington, giving a speech alongside Martin Luther King. Jr. After King was assassinated, Coretta Scott King asked Baker if she would take over as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement but she refused, unable to make a decision that could potentially leave her 12 adopted children without a mother.

Baker continued to perform, and in 1973 she was greeted with a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall in New York. The show was hugely successful, and marking Baker’s comeback after dealing with decades of rejection and racism in the U.S. Two years later, she performed at the Bobino Theatre in Paris to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her Paris debut. Days later, she died in her sleep at the age of 69 surrounded by newspapers containing her best ever reviews. More than 20,000 people watched her funeral procession, and the French government honoured her with a 21-gun salute. She was the first American woman to be buried in France with military honours. She is buried in the Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco.

Sources here, here, here and here.

Josephine Baker was suggested by @addyinparis

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