Features Magazine Volume 69, Issue 5

The Legacy of Josephine Baker

by Mateo Requejo-Tejada

“Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,” as President Gerald Ford said in 1976 when he officially recognized Black History. It’s important to take advantage of the shortest month of the year to teach about high achieving black present and historical figures that we would otherwise not learn about in school. One such historical figure is the war hero and first ever black moviestar, Josephine Baker. 

Although Josephine Baker was incredibly famous throughout Europe she has become all but forgotten by most people today however she contributed much to activism through the civil rights movement, and intelligence gathering during World War II

Born in 1906 St. Louis Missouri, Josephine Baker spent her early life in poverty working to help provide income for her mother and family, before learning to dance. As Baker became a better dancer, she began to tour the United States until moving to New York City where she performed. During the height of American jazz popularity in 1925 France, Josephine Baker decided to take -advantage of this and went to perform in France where she made a name for herself.

 Baker soon became the most famous and highest paid performer in Europe where she captured the admiration of other cultural figures like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and E.E Cummings. She earned the nicknames Black Venus and Black Pearl along with well over 1000 marriage proposals showing just how renowned her acting career was in France and most of Europe.

Baker was able to live a luxurious life sporting a diamond collared pet cheetah and sleeping in Marie Antoinette’s bed, which she purchased. 

However, when World War II began she joined the red cross and aided the French Resistance against Nazi Germany, acting as a spy carrying hidden messages. At the end of the war, Baker was awarded two of France’s highest military honors for her efforts, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour. 

In her later years, Baker adopted 12 children from around the world and raised them as her own, inviting others to her home “to demonstrate that people of different races could in fact live together harmoniously,” according to Biography.com.

Baker would often return to the U.S to aid in the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, in 1963 she joined the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. on The March on Washington and was one of the many speakers of that day. On the day of Baker’s funeral, 20,000 people occupied the streets of Paris France to pay their respects to Baker. “and the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Baker the first American woman in history to be buried in France with military honors.”