Josephine Baker was born on June 3, 1906 bearing the name Freda Josephine McDonald. Baker grew up in poverty, but went on to become one of the most popular dancers and performers in Europe and an avid civil rights activist in the United States. Baker is the first American woman buried in France with military honors.
From Humble Beginnings to Making a Statement on the Stage
Baker learned early-on how to work hard for her dreams. Baker’s parents were Carrie McDonald, a washwoman, who abandoned her aspirations of becoming a music-hall dancer, and Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer; however, Carson abandoned Baker and her mother shortly after Baker was born. Her mother remarried and had three more children.
Baker started babysitting and cleaning houses at the early age of 8 years old to help bring in wages for her family. At the age of 13, Baker ran away from home to work as a waitress at The Old Chauffeur's Club. Here, she met and married the first of four husbands, Willie Wells; however, the marriage lasted only a few weeks. Later she married and divorced American Willie Baker in 1921 (choosing to keep his namesake); Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937; and Frenchman Jo Bouillon in 1947.
Creating a Career Path
In 1919, Baker performed comedy sketches while touring across the U.S. with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers. Baker, was met with racism when she attempted to advance as a chorus girl. According to her estate’s homepage, Baker was told she was “too skinny and too dark.” Baker was not defeated.
Despite rejection, Baker learned all the chorus routines while working as a dresser for the The Dixie Steppers’ Shuffle Along production. When a dancer decided to suddenly leave the production, Baker’s steadfastness paid off because she was up to speed and ready to immediately take over the dancer’s role. Audiences loved the comedic elements she added to the routine. From there, Baker moved to New York City where she experienced reasonable success performing on the floor show of the Plantation Club.
Gaining Fame and Making a Name
However, it wasn’t until Baker moved to Paris in 1925 and performed in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, that she experienced massive fame. Baker captivated audiences wearing only a feather skirt when performing with her dance partner, Joe Alex, in Danse Sauvage. The following year, Baker shocked audiences with her incredible performance and risqué costumes, such as wearing little more than 16 bananas strung to a skirt, in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater.
Baker’s celebrity appeal and popularity grew. She soon became one of the most well paid performers in Europe and was awarded European Performer of the Year in 1927. Her admirers included known artists and writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and E.E. Cummings. Furthermore, it’s reported that Baker received more than 1,000 marriage proposals in her lifetime.
Hoping she’d receive a similar welcome in her home country, Baker returned to the United States and was disappointed. She was rejected by audiences and media who could not accept the idea of a successful, powerful, African American female performer. Soon-after, she traveled back to France.
War and Civil Rights Movement
Shortly after Baker’s return, World War II broke out. Baker supported war efforts in several ways, from volunteering for the Red Cross and performing for troops, to serving as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and as a correspondent for the French Resistance, where she smuggled messages in her music sheets. For her efforts, Baker was awarded two of France’s top military honors: the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance.
After the war, Baker married her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, a French orchestra leader. Together they began adopting babies from around the world, which she called the “rainbow tribe.” All in all, Baker adopted 12 children as an “experiment in brotherhood” and invited people to come and see that children of different races and ethnicities can live together in brother-and-sisterhood.
During the 1950s and 60s, Baker returned frequently to the U.S. to assist with the Civil Rights Movement. Alongside Martin Luther King Jr., she joined the March on Washington. The NAACP named May 20 “Josephine Baker Day” in light of her efforts and support with the movement.
Performing until the End
By the time 1973 rolled around, Baker was nervous when she was asked to perform at Carnegie Hall. However, this time, Baker was welcomed with a standing ovation -- a complete contrast to the hostile and racist reception she faced in the U.S. earlier in her career.
Baker died in 1975, but not before she celebrated her golden (50th) anniversary of her Paris debut in the Bobino Theater in Paris. During her funeral procession in Paris, more than 20,000 people lined the streets and the French Military honored Baker with a 21-gun salute, making Baker the first American woman to ever receive such an honor. Baker once said, "I love performing. I shall perform until the day I die." And, she did just that.
By Lisa Zimmermann
Yoon Joung Lee
A Polish Catholic social worker, Irena Sendler, was born in 1910 in Warsaw,
a city belonging to the territory of the German Empire. Her parents were physician, Dr. Stanislaw Krzyzanowski and his wife, Janina Krzyzanowska. Irena’s last name became Sendler when she married in her early twenties. While she was serving the city’s welfare department during Nazi
Germany’s brutal World War II occupation, she took a great risk on rescuing Jewish children, as part of Żegota. Nazis burned the ghetto, shot the Jewish residents and sent them to death camps.
From 1940 to 1943, Sendler saved about 2,500 children. She smuggled out infants in the bottom part of trucks and put the elder kids in large bags in the back of the truck where she kept her trained dog. The dog was trained to bark every time the soldiers made passage, and it was also able to cover kids crying somewhat. The soldiers always got annoyed by it and made the process quicker.
In 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo and severely tortured. They broke her arms and legs, and sentenced Sendler to death with 39 other women prisoners. She was saved on the way to her execution by a German guard, who was paid by her friends in the resistance. Since her name was on the execution list, she had to live in hiding during the rest of the war while she still helped and worked for the Jewish children.
To get rid of all records of the children she has saved, she put those in a jar and
buried it in her backyard. After the war ended, she tried to track the parents whose children she had saved. However, most of the adult parents were killed at the Treblinka extermination camp and their children were adopted by foster families.
Sendler’s story was hidden in history until four Kansas high school girls wrote a play
about her in 1999. The story was named, Life in a Jar. This student produced drama has been performed over 285 times all over the nation. The story was later adapted as a television show called The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.
In 1965, she was selected as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations by Yad
Vashem. She was also received theCommander’s Cross award by the Israeli Institute. In 2003, she received the Poland’s highest civilian decoration, the Order of the White Eagle as well as the Jan Karski Award, “For Courage and Heart.”
Sendler suffered from pneumonia and died at a Warsaw hospital in May, 2008.