Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was a bisexual American-French actress, dancer and civil rights activist. She was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, 1927’s silent film Siren of The Tropics. She was a celebrated symbol of the Jazz Age, but she also aided the French Resistance in World War II for which she received a Croix de guerre by the French military.

Josephine (née Freda Josephine McDonald) was born in St. Louis, Missouri to a mother who was adopted by former slaves. The identity of Josephine’s father is questionable, but he is strongly believed to have been a white member of the German family for which her mother worked. Josephine’s mother married Arthur Mann, and together they had three more children.  Like most families in their neighborhood, they were of modest means.  Josephine herself even took on a job at eight years old becoming a live-in domestic, and at the age of twelve, she dropped out of school. At age thirteen, she married her first husband after meeting him while working as a waitress as a club. At age fifteen, she married her second husband, Willie Baker, and left him when she started experiencing success as a traveling vaudeville actress. Although they divorced in 1925, she would keep his surname as her stage name for the rest of her life. In New York, Baker found great success in the famed Broadway Revues. At one point, she was billed as the “highest paid chorus line girl in vaudeville.” This helped launch her move to France where she became a superstar. In response to her success, Baker broke her contract in America and moved to France.  As her stardom grew, luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso praised Baker. She was even the first African American star to visit Yugoslavia. In 1937, Baker married her third husband French industrialist Jean Lion, and she became a French citizen.

During World War II, France declared war on Germany for the invasion of Poland. Because of Baker’s status as an entertainer allowing her to travel into restricted areas without raising suspicion, she carried information for transmission to England about German movement throughout the war. This gave the Allies a tremendous advantage. She was praised and decorated by the French government for her efforts against the Axis Forces.

Josephine Baker was a fierce advocate for racial justice. She championed the civil rights movement in the 1950s. She and her husband were refused service in many restaurants when she visited New York. Baker was so outraged that she wrote numerous articles spotlighting inequality and even spoke at Fisk University about the equality of races in France. Although she was offered great sums of money, Baker refused to perform in American segregated clubs. She worked diligently with the NAACP, and in 1963, spoke at the March on Washington beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By her fourth marriage in 1947 to French composer Jo Bouillon, Baker had adopted 14 children of different ethnicities she dubbed, “The Rainbow Tribe.” Among her four marriages were relationships and dalliances with women including blues singer Clara Smith, vaudeville performer Ada “Brickhouse” Smith and French novelist Colette.

On April 12, 1975, Josephine Baker died from complications from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68.


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