Studio photo of Josephine Baker, 1940, Studio Harcourt.

In 1951, the NAACP deemed May 20th as Josephine Baker Day in honor of her activism, military bravery, and talent. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, USA in 1906, Baker grew up in a diverse, low-income neighborhood. At eight years old, she began working to help support her family and by twelve years of age she dropped out of school to work full-time. At age thirteen, Baker met and married her first husband, whom she met at the Club where she was a waitress. They divorced shortly after and Baker married Willie Baker (whose last name she kept) and began to perform in the Jones Family Band, a vaudeville group. After moving to New York to perform, she divorced Baker in 1925. However, it was not until she moved to Paris in 1925 that Baker felt her career take off. At age 19, Baker moved to Paris, where the more integrated crowds accepted her as a performer rather than just a chorus girl. She became a popular performer and was even depicted in Picasso’s paintings.

When she was 33, Baker was approached to serve as an honorable correspondent, collecting information on Axis forces, after France declared war on Germany. Due to her status as a famous performer Baker was able to travel across Europe, mingling with high-ranking officials and politicians without drawing suspicion or being strip-searched. After the war, Baker received several military honors in recognition of her wartime heroics. Although she remained in France, Baker was active in the Civil Rights movement in the United States. In 1963 she spoke at the March on Washington alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. After King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King approached Baker to replace her husband as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but Baker ultimately declined because of her young children. In 1975 Baker performed at the Bobino in Paris to celebrate her 50 years in show business, where Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli and others watched from the audience. Four days later Baker passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68. She was the first American-born person to be buried with French military honors.

It may seem strange that I decided to include Baker’s girlhood marriages in my description of her early life, however Baker’s determination and refusal to financially depend on her husband provided Baker a means out when problems arose. Her independence and determination allowed for Baker to leave the racially segregated United States and to become an acclaimed performer in Europe. Her independence and determination helped her through the War, where she acted as an unofficial spy for the Allied forces, and helped her through the Civil Rights Movement, where she openly spoke out against racism in the United States. Throughout her life, Baker’s independence and determination helped to shape her extraordinary life. Baker should be remembered as a talented, brave, and outspoken woman, who did not let fear stop her from leaving Missouri to become a world-renowned performer, from smuggling secrets during World War II, nor from speaking out against racial discrimination in the United States. We should all celebrate and honor Josephine Baker doing what is right rather than what is easiest or convenient.

– Maria Smith, Junior Girl

This post is part of our Sites of Girlhood project. Click here to learn more.

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