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Amazing People, Amazing Lives: Josephine Baker

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This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Visitor Services Specialist at the Library. 

Thousands of incredible individuals are represented in the Library’s collections, including people who were once celebrated household names but who are much less familiar now. Women’s History Month is a perfect time to remember the lives some of these figures led and the legacies they left, including Josephine Baker, who in the early 20th century was a trailblazer and  global superstar.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906, she experienced poverty and a difficult childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. She started work as a maid at seven; even before then she had helped her mother with housecleaning and laundry work. She had little schooling so did not learn to read and write properly until adulthood. She danced and performed from a young age, putting on plays for kids in her neighborhood.

Josephine Baker, no date, Prints & Photographs Division

Josephine’s circumstances meant she grew up fast. In 1917 the family was left homeless by the Box Car race riots, described in two contemporary press accounts here, and here. In 1919, aged thirteen, she left St. Louis when she joined a touring dance group. Two years later, she met and married Willie Baker. The relationship soon ended and she moved to New York to perform as a chorus girl. She did keep her married name, and Freda McDonald became Josephine Baker.

Her big break came in 1925. She arrived in Europe with the dance troupe La Revue Nègre, formed to capitalize on the craze for black music and dance that started with the introduction of jazz by African American soldiers in World War I.

Josephine took Paris by storm. She reveled in the freedom she found there as a Black woman, unlike her experiences in the United States. Much of the persona created for her is offensive today, given that she was portrayed as a semi-nude “wild savage.” However, at the time her fame meant she was feted and honored widely, befriended by Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and other celebrities. She was the first Black woman to star in a major film, Zouzou in 1934, and was the highest paid entertainer in pre-war France. She became a citizen in 1937, when she married the first of her two French husbands.

In contrast to her public persona, there was a deeply serious side to Josephine. During World War II she worked for the French Resistance.  For her efforts and the risks she ran she was awarded two of the highest French honors. After the war she was active in charitable work.

Josephine fought racism as well as Nazism. She was vocal about the discrimination she experienced when she visited the States and refused to perform for segregated audiences there. She became active in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1951, the NAACP declared May 20 “Josephine Baker Day,” in recognition of her work with the organization. She was at the 1963 March on Washington, appearing in her French military uniform and medals. You can read about the March and see an image of Josephine there in this Library blog post.

To demonstrate how different races could live together happily, in the 1950s she adopted her “rainbow tribe,” twelve children of different nationalities. She left the stage and moved the family to her chateau in the French countryside, where she was joined by her mother and several of her siblings. She lost the property through bankruptcy in 1969, leading to more upheaval and challenges for her to overcome.

Josephine Baker in 1949. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Prints & Photographs Division.

Days after a triumphant return to the stage to mark the 50th anniversary of her Parisian career, Josephine died of a stroke. Just as she had been the first American woman awarded the Croix de Guerre, she was the first to be buried with full French military honors. Her funeral procession through Paris was attended by thousands of onlookers who paid tribute to the courage and barrier-breaking life of this remarkable star. She was buried in Monaco, thanks to her friend Princess Grace, the former American actress Grace Kelly.

There are many books about the fabulous Josephine Baker. Some particularly suited to young readers are:

  • Maria Isabel Sanchez Vergara, Josephine Baker (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2018). Ages 4-7.
  • Patricia Hruby Powell, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle Books, 2014). Ages 7-10.
  • Peggy Caravantes. The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy (Chicago Review Press, 2018). Ages 12+.
  • Jose-Luis Bocquet and Catel Muller, Josephine Baker (SelfMadeHero, 2017). Ages 13+.

From a childhood spent in poverty in East St. Louis, Baker became the toast of Paris and fought Nazi ideology and racial discrimination along the way. She was truly an amazing woman who led an amazing life.

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