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Josephine Baker: About

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. (Continue reading from National Women's History Museum)

Learn More

Josephine Baker Is The First Black Woman To Be Buried At The Pantheon In Paris (NPR)

Josephine Baker (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Josephine Baker (Biography)

Siren of the Resistance: The Artistry and Espionage of Josephine Baker (National WWII Museum)

Josephine Baker (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Josephine Baker's Life in Photos (Harper's Bazaar)

Biography: Josephine Baker (Official Site of Josephine Baker)

Paris When It Sizzles: The Loves and Lives of Josephine Baker (Vanity Fair)

Josephine Baker (The Legacy Project)

Biography of Josephine Baker, Dancer, Singer, Activist, and Spy (Thought Co.)

Items from the Collection