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Josephine Baker: About

Josephine Baker


Who was Josephine Baker?

World renowned performer, World War II spy, and activist are few of the titles used to describe Josephine Baker. One of the most successful African American performers in French history, Baker’s career illustrates the ways entertainers can use their platforms to change the world.

On June 3, 1906, Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents, both entertainers, performed throughout the segregated Midwest often bringing her on stage during their shows. Unfortunately, their careers never took off, forcing the young Baker to look for odd jobs to survive. If she was unable to find work she would often dance on the streets, collecting money from onlookers. Eventually, her routine caught the attention of an African American theatre troupe. At the age of 15, Baker ran off and began to perform with the group. She also married during this time, taking her husband’s last name and dropping her first name, becoming Josephine Baker.

Baker flourished as a dancer in several Vaudeville shows, which was a popular theatre genre in the 20th century. She eventually moved to New York City and participated in the celebration of black life and art now known as the Harlem Renaissance. A few years later her success took her to Paris. Baker became one of the most sought-after performers due to her distinct dancing style and unique costumes. Although her audiences were mostly white, Baker’s performances followed African themes and style. In her famed show Danse Sauvage she danced across stage in a banana skirt. Baker was multitalented, known for her dancing and singing she even played in several successful major motion pictures released in Europe. 

When Adolf Hitler and the German army invaded France during World War II, Baker joined the fight against the Nazi regime. She aided French military officials by passing on secrets she heard while performing in front of the enemy. She transported the confidential information by writing with invisible ink on music sheets. Continue reading from National Women's History Museum


Items from the Collection

Link to The Many Faces of Josephine Baker by Peggy Caravantes in Hoopla
Link to When Paris Sizzled by Mcauliffe in the catalog
Link to Essential Classics, Vol. 59: Jos├ęphine Baker in Hoopla
Link to The French Way (film) in Hoopla
Link to Jazz Age Josephine by Winter in the catalog
Link to Dance in America by Aloff in the catalog
Link to Josephine by Patricia Powell in the catalog

Link to African American History Resource Guide Series Homepage