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Josephine Baker (1906 - 1975)

Josephine Baker was an entertainer from St. Louis, Missouri, who became famous for her singing, dancing, and acting in New York City and Paris, France. She worked for the French Resistance during World War II
World War II was a global conflict that began in Europe on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. In response, Britain and France declared war on Germany. War broke out between the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allied Powers (Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). Japan invaded China, occupied the Philippines, and seized a number of islands throughout the Pacific, while Germany captured much of Europe and North Africa before invading the Soviet Union. Millions of civilians were killed; Jews were specifically singled out by the Germans for extermination, as were other minorities, such as those who were mentally ill, physically and mentally disabled, homosexual, or members of political and religious groups who opposed the Axis Powers.

The United States provided aid to the Allied Powers but remained neutral until Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. The United States then declared war on Japan and, in turn, Germany declared war on the United States. The United States joined the Allied Powers and launched an enormous war effort at home and abroad. On the home front, civilians made important contributions by helping to produce military equipment, supplies, and food in record amounts. American military forces fought in Europe, North Africa, and throughout the Pacific against the Axis Powers. By the end of the war, over twelve million Americans had served in the armed forces.

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered, bringing an end to the war in Europe. The war in the Pacific continued until the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in early August 1945. The Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945. By the end of the war, over 418,500 American servicemen were killed, and worldwide an estimated thirty-eight million people lost their lives during the war.
and fought for civil rights
Civil Rights refers to rights that all individuals in a society are guaranteed by their government in order to protect them from unfair treatment. In the United States, a citizen's civil rights are outlined in the first ten amendments of the Constitution, which are called the Bill of Rights.
in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. By the end of her life, she had formally adopted twelve children of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, calling them her "Rainbow Tribe."

Born Freda Josephine McDonald, June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Josephine escaped a life of poverty to become a theater sensation. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, was a laundress and never married Josephine's father, Eddie Carson. Josephine dropped out of school early, and she was married at the age of thirteen to Willie Wells. That marriage ended quickly, and she married again at fifteen to Will Baker in 1921. While she left that marriage also, Josephine kept his name.

After a year of performing with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers, Josephine Baker went to New York where she eventually got a part in the chorus for Shuffle Along, the first successful black musical. She went to Paris in 1925 and became famous while singing and dancing in La Revue Negre. When that show closed, she went onto perform in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergere Theater and became known for her unique dancing style and outrageous costumes.

Baker’s success, in theater and in movies, continued during her time in France, and she became a French citizen after marrying Jean Lion. Her love of France was evident in her participation in the French Resistance during World War II. She was made a sublieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force and earned a medal for her work on behalf of the Allies.

Souvenir Program from St. Louis performance Souvenir Program from St. Louis performance Souvenir program from Baker's performance at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis on February 3, 1952

[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-St. Louis]
Baker was shocked by the racism in America when she toured in 1951. She refused to perform for segregated
Segregation is the practice of separating people by race, ethnicity, or class through legal or illegal methods.
audiences and devoted the rest of her life to the civil rights movement. She spoke at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963-an event that peaceably brought together civil rights groups and leaders to support the passage of civil rights legislation.

Baker and her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, lived in a French chateau they called Les Milandes with their adopted children. Baker continued to perform in order to support her large family, but she was unable to keep up with the costs of her large estate, and the bank foreclosed on her home in 1969.

This setback did not stop Baker. She continued doing what she loved: singing and dancing. A few days before her death of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, she had performed before a sold-out crowd in Paris. Baker was given a twenty-one gun salute at her funeral in Paris, France, and thousands of people lined the streets to honor her.

Baker became famous for her theatrical performances, but she devoted her life to the idea that people of all nationalities can live peacefully together. She fought against fascism in Europe during World War II and racism in the United States.

Text and research by Laura R. Jolley


References and Resources

For more information about Josephine Baker's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • "Josephine Baker Dies; Popular Singer in France." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. April 13, 1975, p. 19A.
  • Books
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 24-25. [REF F508 D561]
    • Lahs-Gonzales, Olivia, ed. Josephine Baker: Image and Icon. St. Louis: Reedy Press, 2006. [REF F508.1 B1737La]
    • McMillen, Margot Ford. Into the Spotlight: Four Missouri Women. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. [REF 508 M228in]
    • Rose, Phyllis. Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in her Time. NY: Doubleday, 1989. [REF F508.1 B1737r]

Historic Missourians: Josephine Baker
Main image FrameJosephine Baker in Paris, October 20, 1949

[Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection]

Josephine Baker

Born: June 3, 1906
Died: April 12, 1975 (age 68)
Categories: African Americans, Entertainers, Women
Region of Missouri: St. Louis
Missouri Hometown: St. Louis