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