In France during the 1920s, it wasn’t difficult to spot a poster of a vibrant, young woman decorated in a dazzling banana skirt with strings of pearls strewn across her bare chest.
Fans flocked to theaters and music halls for a glimpse of the extraordinary entertainer known for the “Danse Sauvage,” during which she’d shake and shimmy wildly on stage while famously crossing her eyes.
Her name was Josephine Baker, and she was a force.
As one of the highest-paid performers in Europe at that time, Baker was black girl magic personified. Throughout her 50-year career, she used her platform to redefine notions of fashion, art and race in a way that continues to impact cultures today.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906, Baker grew up in poverty in St. Louis but gravitated toward the arts at a young age. As a girl, she toured with the Jones Family Band and Dixie Steppers, and later joined the musical “Shuffle Along” as a teen in New York.
Her fame as a jazz musician and actress skyrocketed after she uprooted to Paris in the 1920s. Landing roles in French films — including “Zouzou,” “Princesse Tam-Tam” and “Moulin Rouge” — she became the first person of African descent to become a global artist and star in a major motion picture. And she eventually renounced her U.S. citizenship and made France her official home.
When World War II erupted, she called for peace, working for the French Resistance by smuggling messages in her sheet music or underwear.
But despite her fame and prestige abroad, she did not have a warm homecoming when she returned to America in the 1930s. With Jim Crow laws in full effect, at least 36 hotels refused to serve her. She was so appalled by the treatment that she only performed for integrated audiences. She also began touring the South, speaking and writing about the racism in the region in an effort to bring about change.
Civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks caught wind of her work and invited her to partner with the NAACP and speak during the March On Washington in 1963.
When King was assassinated in 1968, his widow, Coretta Scott King, asked Baker to be the new leader of the civil rights movement. Baker declined, expressing concern for her family. But she continued her activism, adopting orphans from all over the world. In total, she adopted 12 children from countries including Japan, Morocco, Israel and Venezuela, dubbing them the “rainbow tribe.”
In 1975, Baker died from a cerebral hemorrhage four days after starring in a comeback show to celebrate 50 years in the business. More than 20,000 people filled the streets of Paris to attend her funeral, and the French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making her the first American-born woman buried in France with full military honors.
Although it has been nearly a century since Baker hit the scene, her legend continues to spread its magic.
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.
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