Josephine Baker with her pet cheetah, Chiquita.

Josephine Baker was an American born cabaret performer who rose to stardom in the 1920s as a result of her unique talent for captivating an audience, however she was so much more than an entertainer. Her strong personality, integrity and bravery in the face of adversity helped her gain honours for her part in the French Resistance movement during World War Two, as well as leading to her becoming an instrumental figure in the civil rights movement in America.

Rise to Stardom

Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker came from a very poor background and had to work from a young age to help support her family. By the time she was 13 years old, she was already performing on stage and when she got her big chance as a chorus girl a year later, the comedy she injected into the routines was a big hit with audiences.

At the age of 19, Josephine was packing out venues in Paris, France, the country that would become her adopted home. In her routines she wore bold, skimpy outfits such as a feathered skirt and her most famous costume, which was made out of artificial bananas. She often appeared on stage with her pet cheetah, Chiquita and also added comedic touches like bowing her legs, crossing her eyes and scatting to the music, which combined with her immense talent for singing and dancing made her an overnight sensation.

By 1927 she was the highest paid entertainer in Europe and one of the most photographed women in the world. She owned her own nightclubs, was one of the first African American women to star in motion pictures and in 1934 she was featured in La Créole, an operetta by the 19th-century composer Jacques Offenbach.

Josephine Baker - A World War Two Hero


Josephine Baker during World War Two.

During the Second World War, Josephine used her considerable talents to help the war efforts of her adopted country. Not only did she entertain the troops, she aided the French Resistance by passing along secret messages written on her music sheets. She also spent time working as a nurse for the Red Cross and was a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

Later, the French government awarded her with the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for her contribution to the war effort. When she died in 1975 aged 68, she became the first American woman in France to receive a funeral with military honours complete with a twenty-one gun salute, which was attended by over 20,000 of her adoring fans.

Josephine Baker and the Civil Rights Movement

In the 1950s and 60s, Josephine spent some time in America and became a staunch activist in the civil rights movement. She refused to perform in venues that practiced segregation, sometimes turning down large amounts of money in order to stick to her principles. When she was refused service in the Stork Club in New York because of the colour of her skin, it led to a media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell in which she showed despite the inherent dangers, she was not afraid to speak her mind publicly.

Despite the fact that American audiences largely rejected her because she refused to adhere to the normal stereotypes expected of black entertainers during the period, so important was her contribution to the civil rights movement that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) honoured her by naming May 20th as Josephine Baker Day. Josephine is quoted as saying;
“Surely the day will come when colour means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one's soul, when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood”.
This belief in equality and integration was her guiding principle throughout her life and was reflected in her own family. She adopted twelve children from various nationalities and often referred to her family as the Rainbow Tribe. By practicing what she preached, she aimed to prove to the world that children from different races and religions could be brothers and sisters.


Josephine Baker during the March on Washington.

In 1963, she participated in the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech. She was the only woman to speak to the 20,000 people who turned up that day, telling the audience they were like “Salt and pepper. Just what it should be.” She also stated in her 20 minute talk;
“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. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world”.

References:

Blume, L.M.M. [Internet]. 2010. How Josephine Baker Helped Save Post-War French Fashion. The Huffington Post. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lesley-m-m-blume/josephine-baker-fashion-h_b_601072.html [Accessed May 15, 2014].

Goldstein, J. [Internet]. 2011. March on Washington had one Female Speaker: Josephine Baker. The Washington Post. Available from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/march-on-washington-had-one-female-speaker-josephine-baker/2011/08/08/gIQAHqhBaJ_story.html [Accessed May 15, 2014].

Harrison, J. [Internet]. 1994. Baker, Josephine. Contemporary Musicians. Encyclopedia.com. Available from: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3492800011.html [Accessed May 15, 2014].

Josephine Baker. [Internet]. 2003. The Victoria & Albert Museum. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/j/josephine-baker/ [Accessed May 15, 2014].

Josephine Baker Biography. [Internet]. 2014. The Official Site of Josephine Baker. Available from: http://www.cmgww.com/stars/baker/about/biography.html [Accessed May 15, 2014].

Williamson, H. [Internet]. 2013. What Josephine Baker Teaches Us about Women’s Enduring Legacy Within the Civil Rights Movement. Think Progress. Available from: http://thinkprogress.org/health/2013/08/28/2543871/josephine-baker-women-civil-rights [Accessed May 15, 2014].