Singer, dancer, allied spy

Black History Brief: The life of Josephine Baker

by Bri Branscomb, Staff Writer

As Black History Month has kicked off, the time has come to look back on African-Americans who have greatly influenced and shaped the face of our nation. From civil rights, to the invention of traffic lights, black people have made important innovations throughout the history of our nation. One such icon was Josephine Baker, a prominent singer in France who was originally born in St. Louis, Missouri. Baker moved to Paris as a career move, as the United States was still under Jim Crow, a set of laws that segregated black and white Americans under the false justification of ‘separate but equal.’ Baker found great success as a performer there, and went on to become the highest paid performer in Europe during her time.

Baker was also more than just a performer. During World War II, Baker worked with the French Resistance as a spy. She often smuggled secret messages along with her on her tours throughout Europe, the notes written in invisible ink on her sheet music. She was also able to smuggle pictures of German military installments by pinning the photographs to her underwear. At the conclusion of the war, Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance, France’s two highest military honors.

Baker was a dedicated Civil Rights activist, having taken part in various protests in the United States, including the famous March on Washington. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, she was offered a leadership position in the movement by King’s widower, Coretta Scott-King. Baker ultimately turned the offer down due to her obligations to her children. She had adopted ten boys and two girls in her forties and fifties, and often called her family “The Rainbow Tribe” as a statement to point out that people of all different races and ethnicities could come together in brotherhood.
Shortly before Baker’s death, she was able to return to the United States to perform at Carnegie Hall, where she received a standing ovation and openly wept at this reception, as it was a sharp contrast to her treatment by American audiences years prior. Baker died in 1975 in Paris, France, and was buried with full French military honors.