Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie, was a washerwoman. She had once dreamed of being a music-hall dancer but eventually gave up on the possibility. McDonald’s father was a vaudeville drummer. He abandoned young Josephine and her mother shortly after her birth.
Eight-year-old McDonald began working as a domestic. She cleaned houses and babysat for wealthy White people who mistreated her. She returned to school for a few years but ran away from home at the age of 13. She worked as a waitress in a club.
While working in the club, McDonald honed her dancing chops. By 1919, she was touring with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers as a dancer. She performed comedic skits. She married Willie Baker in 1923. Although they divorced years later, she kept his name as she pursued a career as a performer.
With her mild successes, Baker set out to New York. There, she began performing in Chocolate Dandies, as well as in shows at the Plantation Club. She soon became a crowd favorite. In 1925, France’s infatuation with all things exotic, including American jazz, prompted her to travel to Paris. There, she performed in La Revue Nègreat the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. During this performance, she performed in only a feather skirt, leaving a lasting impression on French audiences.
In 1926, Baker’s career finally took off. She performed in the show, La Folie du Jour wearing a skirt made of 16 bananas. Parisians adored her performance and she soon became one of the highest-paid performers in Europe. She captured the admiration of Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, and many other cultural figures of the time. She also earned the nicknames ‘Black Venus’ and ‘Black Pearl.’
In 1936, Baker performed in the Ziegfield Follies in the hopes of making a name for herself in the U.S. After being met with vile bigotry and vehement racism, however, she quickly returned to Paris and became a citizen of France. During WWII, she joined the French Resistance. For her military work, she earned the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Baker returned to the U.S. in order to join the Civil Rights Movement. She marched alongside MLK during the 1963 March on Washington and served as a speaker that day. As a result of her assistance in the movement, the NAACP declared May 20th Josephine Baker Day.
After a lifetime of racism and rejection from the U.S., Baker performed at Carnegie Hall in 1973. She received a standing ovation which moved her to tears and marked her return to the stage. In honor of the 50th anniversary of her Paris debut, she gave the first performance of a series of performances. Days later, Josephine Baker died on April 12, 1975, of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 68 years old.
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