Josephine Baker was a dancer and singer who later became a Civil Rights activist. Her birth name was Freda Josephine McDonald and she was born on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother used to be a dancer as well, but she gave up her aspirations in order to raise her children. Her father was a drummer who abandoned the family when Josephine was born. Her mother remarried soon after. Josephine had a difficult childhood and would often clean houses to help supplement the meager family income, where she was often mistreated. Josephine dropped out of school at a young age, but later returned for two years, before dropping out again. She ran away from home at the age of 13, living on the streets and hunting for food in garbage cans.
She used to dance on the street to make money, and her work caught the attention of the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show, who hired her as a dancer. She moved to New York at the age of 15, and started performing in clubs and bars, also working as a waitress to support herself. At one such club, she met and married a man named Willie Wells. The marriage only lasted a few weeks, and the couple quickly got divorced. She was also chosen to be a chorus singer and dancer for the Broadway plays “Shuffle Along” in 1921 and “The Chocolate Dandies” in 1924. She then went to France, where she starred in a number of performances at prestigious venues such as the Theatre des Champs Élysees and Folies Bergere. She became a well known exotic dancer in France, and some of her admirers include Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and E. E. Cummings. She quickly rose to fame and was nicknamed “Bronze Venus”, “Black Pearl” and the “Creole Goddess”.
Josephine Baker also began performing in movies, and became the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture. Some of her films include “Siren of the Tropics”, “Zouzou”, “Princesse Tam Tam” and “Fausse Alerte”. Despite her success in France, Baker never received acclaim from American audiences. She moved to France in 1937 and married a man named Jean Lion. She eventually got her nationality changed from American to French. Baker worked as a secret informant during World War II. She would attend high class parties where she met important foreign officials, and would report her findings to the French military intelligence. She was honored by being made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. She was also actively involved in the American Civil Rights Movement, writing articles and giving lectures and speeches. She worked hand in hand with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, when his wife Coretta asked Baker to take over after her husband’s assassination, Baker refused, citing the reason that her children were too young for her to be away from them so much.
Baker was named NAACP “Woman of the Year” in 1951 and the NAACP named Sunday 20 May 1951 as Josephine Baker Day. She refused to perform to segregated audiences, despite the fact that club owners offered her large amounts of money. Towards the end of her life, she struggled financially. In one of her last trips to America, she performed at Carnegie Hall to a huge crowd where she received a standing ovation. She was friends with actress Grace Kelly and was married a total of four times. She died in April 1965 at the age of 68.