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josephine baker avynyet james smallwood
Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker

“You must get an education. You must go to school, and you must learn to protect yourself. And you must learn to protect yourself with the pen, and not the gun.”

Josephine Baker, who was the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou in 1934, became one of Europe’s highest-paid entertainers in the 1920s.

Baker, who was called “Bronze Venus” and “Black Pearl,” was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis. Her mother was Carrie McDonald. Her father, Eddie Carson, abandoned them soon after she was born. Her mother remarried and had several more children. To help support the family, Baker cleaned houses and babysat. She returned to school for a time, then ran away at age 13 and working as a waitress in a club. She married Willie Wells, then divorced him weeks later. Around this time, she started dancing in clubs and on the street. In 1919, she began touring with two groups and performing comedy skits. In 1921, she married Willie Baker, whose name she kept although they divorced.

In 1923, Baker performed in the chorus of the musical “Shuffle Along,” and moved to New York hoping to build on her success. She danced in one show, then became a crowd favorite at the Plantation Club. She moved to France and performed in La Revue Negre, which was not a successful show. But her popularity increased when she performed in 1925 at the Folies Bergere music in La Folie du Jour, when she danced wearing a skirt made of 16 bananas and not much else. She sang professionally for the first time in 1930, then appeared in films including Zouzou and Princesse Tam-Tam. She returned to the United States hoping to build on her popularity in France, but was greeted with racism, hostility and rejection. She went back to France, got married to a French citizen and became a French citizen herself.

When World War II broke out, Baker worked for the Red Cross during the occupation of France. She entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East. Most notably, she worked for the French Resistance, smuggling messages. She received two of France’s highest military honors, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance.

After the war, she married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon and in 1950 began to adopt babies from around the world, creating what she called her “rainbow tribe.” In the 1950s, she traveled to the United States to support the civil rights movement by participating in demonstrations and boycotting segregated clubs and concert halls.

Baker died at age 69 on April 12, 1975, of a cerebral hemorrhage.



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