Updated: Jan 18
Who is Josephine Baker?
Josephine Baker was an American-born French entertainer and performer, French Resistance agent, World War II spy, and civil rights activist. Baker’s career shows the ways entertainers can utilize their platforms to influence society and change the world. Josephine Baker became one of the most successful black performers France has ever seen. While she had four marriages with men, she also had several relationships with women which identifies her as bisexual. When Hitler and the German army invaded France during World War II, Baker joined the fight against the Nazi regime. She transported secrets she heard while performing for the enemies with invisible ink, wiring messages, and information on her sheet music.
In the early summer in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker was born by the name Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906. Baker was raised by her two parents, who were also performers, and often found herself on stage with them as they performed throughout the Midwest, which was greatly segregated. Like many at the time, Baker’s parents never succeeded in their entertainment careers, forcing Josephine to make ends meet herself. To do this, Baker would often dance in the streets to collect money, much like street performers do in New York and other major cities today. While dancing one day at the age of 15, she was noticed by an African American theatre troupe and asked to come perform with them. Around the same time, Josephine got married and took on the last name of her husband, Baker, and claimed her middle name, Josephine, as her first. Thus, she is now known as Josephine Baker.
Life of an Entertainer
Josephine Baker became one of the most popular and sought-after performers, especially in France. Her unique choreography, which embodied traditional African styles, and costumes made her an unforgettable entertainer. Baker starred in many Vaudeville shows, a theatrical style of performance throughout the 20th century. She later moved to New York and immersed herself into the performance seen there. At this time, New York was experiencing the Harlem Renaissance, which was a revival and appreciation of African American art and entertainment. After her time in New York, Baker moved her entertainment internationally to Paris, where she won over audiences, predominately white ones.
Working as a World War II Spy
Due to the outbreak of World War II, Josephine's career as a performer was put on hold. With the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, Baker found herself checking off all the boxes the Nazis were against. She was now in her third marriage, an interracial relationship with a French-Jewish man, as an openly bisexual woman. As Hitler and his army invaded their way into Paris, Baker, along with thousands of others, fled the city for her own safety. Once in Southern France, Baker was recruited by Jacques Abtey to take part in espionage for resistance against the Nazis as her celebrity status allowed for easier and more protected travel between countries.
Josephine Baker housed many other resistance fighters and provided them with the resources they needed. Due to her celebrity status, she was able to attend highly ranked diplomatic parties and gatherings where she observed and took note of any behaviors or plans she noticed. She would write on her skin, pin notes in her underwear, and use invisible ink on her sheet music in order to record and pass on messages because she knew, as a celebrity, no security would suspect her of espionage or strip search her.
Fighting Against Segregation
After World War 2, Baker returned home to St. Louis, where she was shocked to see the widespread segregation that she had not fully understood as a child. Baker took it upon herself to stand up to segregation and once again used her platform as an entertainer to make change. Baker refused to perform for any segregated audiences, which often forced venues to integrate audiences if they wanted the prestige of having such a famous performer at their venue. Baker was recognized by the NAACP and was given the honor of speaking at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Death and Legacy
Josephine Baker is a prime example of celebrities using their platforms for positive social change. Throughout her career, Baker formed her “rainbow tribe” which consisted of her 12 adopted children. She showed people could exist in harmony despite racial or cultural differences. Josephine Baker performed late into her life up until her passing on April 12, 1975.