Black History Month Spotlight: Josephine Baker
Everyone existing in the world was born to make a difference. Not necessarily a major, widely- known impact, but a difference nonetheless. Josephine Baker was definitely one of the few who were born to make a huge impact, to cause a storm, to be remembered.
She was born as Eda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906, to washerwoman, Carrie McDonald and Vaudeville drummer, Eddie Carson. Eddie abandoned them shortly afterward, and Carrie married a kind but perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin. Their family eventually grew to include a son and two more daughters.
Josephine grew up cleaning homes and babysitting for wealthy families. She got her first job at 13 years old waiting tables at the Old Chauffeur’s Club. She had her first marriage soon after that and went on to get married and divorced three more times. She kept her second husband, Willlie Baker‘s, last name and gained French citizenship from the third, Jo Bouillon, who also helped her in the adoption of 12 children.
Josephine toured the U.S with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919, performing various comical skits. When the troupes split, she tried to advance as a chorus girl for The Dixie Steppers in Sissle and Blake’s production Shuffle Along. She was rejected because she was “too skinny and too dark.” Undeterred, she learned the chorus line’s routines while working as a dresser. Josephine was the obvious replacement when a dancer left. Onstage she rolled her eyes and purposely acted clumsy. She quickly gained the audiences approval, and became a permanent addition for the rest of the show’s run.
She enjoyed moderate success at The Plantation Club in New York after Shuffle Along. However, when Josephine traveled to Paris for a new venture, La Revue Nègre, it proved to be a turning point in her career. Josephine and dance partner, Joe Alex, captivated the audience with the Danse Sauvage. Everything about the routine was exotic and unique, causing a sensation in the crowd.
She continued on with her jaw dropping performances, but was extremely devastated when her visit to the United States went wrong. American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power. So Josephine returned to Europe heartbroken.
According to a website sources on her life, Josephine served France during World War II in several ways. She performed for the troops, and was an honorable correspondent for the French Resistance (undercover work included smuggling secret messages written on her music sheets) and a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She was later awarded the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government for hard work and dedication. She visited the United States during the 50s and 60s with renewed vigor to fight racism. When New York’s popular Stork Club refused her service, she engaged a head-on media battle with pro-segregation columnist, Walter Winchell. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) named May 20 Josephine Baker Day in honor of her efforts.
It was also during this time that she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.” Josephine wanted her to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” She often took the children with her cross-country, and tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds of Baker’s home and see how natural and happy the children in “The Rainbow Tribe” were.
One of her greatest successes was at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Due to previous bad experiences in the U.S., she was worried about the audiences reaction. Her worries proved to be in vain, since she received a standing ovation before the concert even began. Racial tensions in the U.S. were still high during this time, and this show of admiration greatly moved her.
Josephine’s last hoorah premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50-year career. The reviews were among her best ever. Days later, however, Josephine slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 5 a.m. on April 12.
More than 20,000 people crowded the streets of Paris to watch the funeral procession on its way to the Church of the Madeleine. The French government honored her with a 21-gun salute, making Josephine Baker the first American woman buried in France with military honors. Her grave site is in the Cimetiére de Monaco, Monaco.
Being born to cause an impact, Josephine Baker still leaves footsteps in our hearts today. She has continued to intrigue and inspire people all over and has opened worlds to many. In 1991, HBO released The Josephine Baker Story. The film garnered five Emmy Awards. The film also won one of the three Golden Globes the film was nominated for that season.