Josephine Baker

Freda Josephine Baker (née McDonald; 3rd June 1906 – 12th April 1975), naturalized as Joséphine Baker, was an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress whose career primarily flourished in Europe, notably in France. Renowned as the first black woman to headline a major motion picture, she starred in the 1927 silent film Siren of the Tropics, directed by Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant.

In her early career, Baker captivated audiences as one of the leading performers in the revues of the Folies Bergère in Paris. Her sensational performance in the 1927 revue Un vent de folie captivated the city, with her iconic costume—a short skirt adorned with artificial bananas and a beaded necklace—becoming emblematic of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.

Acknowledged by artists and intellectuals of her time, Baker was bestowed with various titles, including the “Black Venus”, the “Black Pearl”, the “Bronze Venus”, and the “Creole Goddess”. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she relinquished her U.S. citizenship upon her marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937, embracing French nationality and raising her children in France.

Baker played a crucial role in the French Resistance during World War II. Post-war, she received accolades for her bravery, including the Resistance Medal, the Croix de Guerre, and was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by General Charles de Gaulle. Baker famously proclaimed her allegiance to both her country and Paris, singing: “I have two loves: my country and Paris.”

Determined to combat segregation, Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States, thus becoming a notable figure in the civil rights movement. In 1968, Coretta Scott King offered her unofficial leadership in the movement following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, which Baker declined, prioritizing her children’s welfare.

In a historic moment, on November 30, 2021, Baker was inducted into the Panthéon in Paris, becoming the first black woman to receive one of France’s highest honors. While her final resting place remains in Monaco Cemetery, a cenotaph was erected in vault 13 of the crypt in the Panthéon in her honour.

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