Josephine Baker: French Resistance and the CIvil Rights Movement

Josephine Baker, 1945
Josephine Baker, 1945. Getty Images

Overview

Josephine Baker is best remembered for dancing topless and wearing a banana skirt. Baker’s popularity rose during the 1920s for dancing in Paris. Yet until her death in 1975, Baker was devoted to fighting against injustice and racism throughout the world.

Early Life

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a washerwoman and her father, Eddie Carson was a vaudeville durmmer.

The family lived in St. Louis before Carson left to pursue his dreams as a performer.

By the age of eight, Baker was working as a domestic for rich white families. At the age of 13, she ran away and worked as a waitress.

Timeline of Baker’s Work as a Performer

1919: Baker begins touring with the Jones Family Band as well as the Dixie Steppers. Baker performed comedic skits and danced.

1923: Baker lands a role in the Broadway musical Shuffle Along. Performing as a member of the chorus, Baker added her comedic persona, making her popular with audiences.

Baker moves to New York City. She is soon performing in Chocolate Dandies. She also performs with Ethel Waters at the Plantation Club.

1925 to 1930: Baker travels to Paris and performs in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. French audiences were impressed with Baker’s performance—especially Danse Sauvage, in which she wore only a feather skirt.

1926: Baker’s career hits its peak. Performing at Folies Bergère music hall, in a set called La Folie du Jour, Baker danced topless, wearing a skirt made of bananas. The show was successful and Baker became one of the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe. Writers and artists such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and E.

E. Cummings were fans. Baker also was nicknamed “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl.”

1930s: Baker begins singing and recording professional. She also plays the lead in several films including Zou-Zou andPrincesse Tam-Tam.

1936: Baker returned to the United States and performed. She was met with hostility and racism by audiences. She returned to France and sought citizenship.

1973: Baker performs at Carnegie Hall and receives strong reviews from critics. The show marked Baker’s comeback as a performer.  

In April 1975, Baker performed at Bobino Theater in Paris. The performance was a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of her debut in Paris. Celebrities such as Sophia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco were in attendance.

Work with the French Resistance

1936: Baker works for the Red Cross during the French Occupation. She entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East. During this time, she smuggled messages for the French Resistance. When World War II ended, Baker earned the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour, France’s highest military honors.

Civil Rights Activism

During the 1950s, Baker returned to the United States and supported the Civil Rights Movement. In particular, Baker participated in various demonstrations.

She boycotted segregated clubs and concert venues, arguing that if African-Americans could not attend her shows, she would not perform. In 1963, Baker participated in the March on Washington. For her efforts as a civil rights activist, the NAACP named May 20th “Josephine Baker Day.”

Death

On April 12, 1975, Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage. At her funeral, more than 20,000 people came to the streets in Paris to participate in the procession. The French Government honored her with a 21-gun salute. With this honor, Baker became the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors.