ENTERTAINER, HUMAN RIGHTS PIONEER
“Since I personified the savage on the stage, I tried to be as civilized as possible in daily life.”
“I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.”
Known as “The Black Venus,” Josephine Baker became one of the biggest international stars of the early and mid-1900s. Her fame in Europe exceeded her notoriety in the United States, likely because of racial inequality in her home country. Her fight for human rights was as much a part of her identity as her entertainment career.
THE EARLY YEARS
Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis on June 3, 1906, to former vaudeville performers Carrie McDonald and Eddie Carson. Her father was absent for much of her childhood, and her family struggled financially. She grew up in
the slums of inner-city St. Louis, and she quit school around the age of ten and began working to help put food on the table and even then dreamed of making it big around the world.
RISE TO FAME
Baker began her quest for stardom on the vaudeville stage when she was just sixteen. She toured with a dancing and singing troupe from Philadelphia where she performed the musical comedy Shuffle Along. Her travels eventually took her to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, where she made a name for herself performing at the Plantation Club.
Tragically, her rising fame was overshadowed by racial turmoil in the era approaching the 1920s. Racial discrimination was working against her, and it became apparent that bigger and better opportunities could be found in Europe. So the St. Louis girl packed her bags and headed overseas.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
The early 1900s were a wild time in Europe, so it was easy for her to get exposure, both in song and in body. In 1925, she began her rise to prominence primarily through dance performances that made her a national star in France.
Her act was taken to the next level when she orchestrated a semi-nude dance routine, complete with a G-string that was decorated with bananas. This unique act made her a huge sensation with thousands of adoring fans flocking to see her
on stage. She knew she still needed a career in film to eventually reach the masses so she began singing professionally in 1930. This additional exposure opened the doors for movie roles four years later. She appeared in only a few films before World War II brought her performing career to a halt. During the war she worked tirelessly as a courier for the French underground and used her home as a base of operations. Years later, Baker received the Legion of Honor medal, France’s highest military honor.
As she got older, one of her missions was to open doors for minorities to perform in more places. She refused to perform in clubs unless they followed nondiscriminatory seating practices, which led to the integration of nightclubs
in Europe, and to some extent, in America. As her life on stage wound down, she began focusing primarily on civil rights. She took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where she gave a speech alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Baker died in Europe on April 12, 1975, fifty years after first performing in Paris. Nearly twenty thousand people filled the streets of Paris to pay their respects.
*Baker was married six times.
*In the 1950s, she adopted twelve children of different nationalities, which became known as the Rainbow Family.