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Black History: The Remarkable Life of Josephine Baker


Josephine Baker was a rare figure of her time. She was an international spy, rights activist, and dancer. She used her platform to champion the rights of blacks people across the United States. This explains why she left a huge mark on the world.

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Her beauty and aura captured the audience and was portrayed as a sex symbol. How did she achieve these? In this article, we look at the life and times of Josephine Baker. 

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Josephine Baker’s Early Years

Josephine Baker was born on 3 June 1906 in St. Louis Missouri and was raised by her mother. The identity of her father remains disputed but it’s believed that Eddie Carson was her biological father. She grew up in a poor area of Missouri. Her mother did low-income jobs like laundry to provide for the family. 

To help out, Josephine Baker worked as a house help in a white home. Her boss abused her by burning her hands for using excess soap. 

By the time Josephine Baker was 13, she’d worked a few more jobs after leaving school. To survive, she did street dancing and through this met Willie Wells who married her. The pair divorced after a few months and afterwards, Baker joined a dancing group Jones Family Band.

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Josephine Baker got married for a second time at the age of 15 to William Howard Baker. 

Josephine Baker got married for a second time at the age of 15 to William Howard Baker. However, when her dancing career began to blossom, she left him to pursue it fully.

Baker traveled to New York for the Harlem Renaissance and got a place at Broadway Theatre and took part in the dance performance of Shuffle Along. Baker stayed with Broadway until 1925.

She was part of the vaudeville group that traveled around the world performing. She was in New York for the Harlem Renaissance and got a place at Broadway Theatre. Josephine Baker took part in the dance performance of Shuffle Along and stayed with Broadway until 1925.

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Paris, France

That year, she went to Paris, France, where she built her career and legacy. Her semi-nude performances and erotic dance made her prominent. Her performance of ‘Danse Suavage’ in which she wore a G-string surrounded by bananas made her the icon she was. 

Ernst Hemingways described her as the ‘most sensational woman anyone ever saw.’ Josephine Baker performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées several times. 

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She loved France because it gave her the freedom she couldn’t find in the United States. In 1937, Josephine Baker got married for a third time to Jean Lion and became French. 

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World War II

In 1939, after Germany went to war with France, Josephine Baker was recruited into the French military agency and became a spy. Her job made her an ideal candidate as she had a reason to move around. 

She met Germans during her performances and at embassies and charmed them. However, Josephine Baker was there to get information. She passed this back to the French military, who used it to defeat the Nazis.

Josephine Baker received the following awards: 

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Civil Rights Activists

Josephine Baker used her platform to fight for justice and equality. She supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and refused to perform at racially segregated venues.

For that, she won the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 20 May 1951 was declared the Josephine Baker Day. She was also given the opportunity to speak at various Civil Rights movement events, like as the March in Washington in 1963. 

Despite all the wealth she accumulated, she ended up bankrupt due to mismanagement and over-generosity. She lost her home, but the Princess of Monaco Grace offered her an apartment. 

She kept performing until her death in 1975. Josephine Baker is the only American-born woman to receive full French military honors at a funeral. 

In 2021, she became the first black American woman to be honored at the Pantheon, a preserve of French national heroes. French President Emmanuel Macron described Josephine Baker as “a singer, dancer, war hero and a Black woman who defended black people and a woman who defended humankind.”

Josephine Baker was an incredible woman who wore many hats. She knew where and how to portray each of them and left an indelible legacy that she continues to be remembered by. 

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