Bearing many monikers – Black Pearl, Bronze Venus, Creole Goddess – Josephine Baker was the first woman of color to star in a major motion picture and to become an international entertainer. Born Freda Josephine McDonald she was adopted by former slaves of African and Native American ancestry and raised by them in Little Rock, Arkansas. Themselves stage performers, they introduced their daughter to the stage when she was only a year old.
Josephine was persistently slovenly and underfed as a child due to her family’s impoverishment. She had very little education, attending elementary school only up to fifth grade. At eight-years-old, Josephine started working as a live-in maid for wealthy white families. Fleeing abusive employers, one of whom burned her hands after she put too much soap in the laundry, she often lived on the streets, sleeping in cardboard boxes, eating food out of garbage cans, and dancing on street corners for coins. Baker’s street dancing led to her being recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville at 15.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Miss Baker started performing in a night club’s chorus line and went on to perform in blackface at local comedy clubs. These blackface performances led to her touring Paris, which proved to be the turning point her career needed. Upon arriving there, she became an instant success due to her erotic style of dancing. She quickly became the most successful American entertainer in France, staring in the films, Siren of the Tropics, Zouzou, Princesse Tam Tam, and Fausse Alerte. Scantily clad in only a feather skirt, she drove audiences wild with her uninhibited dance movements and became an overnight sensation.
A success in the field of entertainment, Baker used her fame to support her political beliefs. Her refusal to entertain segregated audiences in the US positioned her as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. During the French- Germany war of 1939, Josephine Baker was recruited by French military intelligence and collected information about German troop locations. She also allowed notes to be written on her sheet music in invisible ink. For her efforts to aid the Resistance of her adopted hometown, she was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance and made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
Her numerous marriages and children did not stop this amazing woman from coming to the aid of the country that took her in and brought her to fame. A major celebrity in Europe, Baker was shocked and saddened upon her return to the US in 1936 when she was not well received by audiences who struggled to understand a black woman of power and sophistication. She returned to Europe shattered. Miss Baker forever after maintained that the world could be a peaceful place if its people could learn to live together in harmony and raise its children with tolerance for each other. “All my life, I have maintained that the people of the world can learn to live together in peace if they are not brought up in prejudice.”