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Josephine Baker, a U.S.-born entertainer, civil rights activist, and anti-Nazi spy, became the first Black woman to receive Paris’ highest honor when inducted into France’s Panthéon. She joins other French luminaries like scientist Marie Curie, philosopher Voltaire, and Victor Hugo.
Her voice echoed through the streets of Paris’ famed Left Bank, as an elaborate ceremony at the domed Panthéon monument played her recordings.
Baker was among the prominent Black Americans writers and artists, including James Baldwin, who found asylum in France after World War II. She was only 19 when she arrived in France and had to build her racial and political consciousness.
In 1937, Baker married industrialist Jean Lion and became a French citizen. She worked with the government as a spy as the second World War dragged through Europe. Her covert service continued through the war when she declined to entertain the Nazis occupying France.
The following year, Baker joined a prominent anti-racist league. She started working for France’s counter-intelligence services against the Nazis. She joined the French renaissance and used her performances to cover her spying activities during the war.
In 1939, she was second-lieutenant of the French Liberation Army under Gen. Charles De Gaulle. After the war, she actively participated in the civil rights struggle and anti-racist politics in France and the United States.
Baker wowed audiences at Paris theater halls with her famous banana-skirt dance routines. However, many activists believed she was the colonization propaganda, singing for the French who wanted her to sing.
She was the first Black superstar in France. She began her career as a jazz performer and showcased her Black heritage in her performances.
Baker was a cultural icon who influenced women regardless of race and encouraged them to seek liberation and sexual freedom. She performed for royal figures throughout her stardom, including Princess Grace of Monaco
Toward the end of her life, she ran into financial troubles, was evicted from home, and lost her properties. Princess Grace of Monaco offered Baker a place to her and her children. Baker died at 68 in Paris.
Written by Janet Grace Ortigas
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
Associated Press: Black artist Josephine Baker honored at France’s Pantheon; by Sylvie Corbet and Jeffrey Schaeffer
NBC News: Josephine Baker becomes first Black woman honored at Paris’ Panthéon; by Claretta Bellamy
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of alyssa BLACK’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of John Seb Barber’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License