Unlikely hero of the French Résistance
This story started in the bad old days at the beginning of the twentieth century. Women had yet to become more than second class citizens. Blacks lived under the Jim Crow laws that enforced apartheid and would until 1965. Blacks were very often lynched for no good reason. Also, vaudeville was considered extremely sinful and reprehensible by the white, 'religious' ruling class.
And she was a black woman born in 1906 Missouri
And she was a black woman with a “big mouth”
And she was a black woman who performed vaudeville
And she was a black woman who was an outspoken militant for racial issues
And she was a black woman who was an outspoken militant for women's issues
NOT a recipe for success
Uneducated, she started life as a washerwoman's daughter, and eventually took care of the babies of white people, who reminded her not to kiss the babies. She then moved on to waitressing, but eventually graduated to vaudeville, where she specialized in comedy. She struggled constantly, hedging her bets, and eventually earned an active part, performing vaudeville while wearing very little. She sang and danced and acted as comedy relief.
BUT she had graduated from demeaning menial jobs reserved for Negroes to become a star of the vaudeville stage.
Of course, many were those who would still hold that against her.
But none of that counted in France! There, Josephine was a hit, a star of stars! She took Paris by storm in 1925 and became known as a performer and stage singer. Moreover, and most importantly, in France she was considered a human being, was listened to when she spoke, and was as respected as any other French citizen would be.
Less than ten years after her arrival in France, she was show business' top earner, one of the most photographed women, and rivaled the brightest stars of the day.
She played at the Folies Bergères! She bought a château!
And she renounced her American citizenship and became a full fledged and very patriotic French citizen. Who can blame her?
In The French résistance
Then the second World War rolled around, and she decided she would have none of that! She would do anything asked of her to stop the Nazis and protect the homeland that adopted her, so she got involved in the French Résistance.
And history tells us that when Josephine Baker got involved, mountains moved.
At first, the résistance officer assigned to meet her was skeptical, but she won him over.
In Hitler's Germany, she would have been considered an anomaly or worse. The Nazis would have treated her like WWI's mixed breed “Rhineland Bastards” (Rheinlandbastarde) who were in a situation similar to the children of American servicemen later left behind in Vietnam after the war. Similar, except that in true Nazi fashion they were sent to concentration camps, called Frontstalags, and from 1933 on were forcefully sterilized.
So she became a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, but worked undercover. She used her celebrity and the excuse of touring to cross borders and carry vital messages inside and out of occupied France. So famous was she that the guards didn't usually go through her baggage but were star struck instead. They asked for her autograph, the equivalent of today's selfie.
The messages were written in invisible ink, probably with some lemon juice-based concoction, on her sheet music. They contained information about Nazi airfields, warships, troop concentration.
In her château's basement, she hid members of the résistance and supplied them with visas. All the while, she gave underground performances in the secret hideouts of the French Résistance, keeping up troop morale.
So involved was she during the war that she eventually was decorated with the Croix de guerre, the Médaille de la Résistance with Rosette, and was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.
“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth.”
- Josephine Baker
A 1936 return to the US with the Ziegfeld Follies was not at all appreciated by the American public who felt that she had way too much power for who she was, and the New York Times even called her a “Negro Wench”. It looks like 'Don't try to rise above your station' was not a uniquely British admonition, after all. She returned home to France, heartbroken but undaunted. She tried again in the fifties and sixties but was rebuffed, again and again. Meanwhile, always the activist, she adopted a dozen children of all races that she called “The Rainbow Tribe”. It was a “social project/family” aiming to prove that people of all races could live and be happy together.
She was acquainted with Martin Luther King and she managed to be included in the momentous Great March on Washington on the twenty-eight of August 1963 that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is where King gave his fabled “I have a dream” speech and Josephine was the only woman to speak, in her full French officer's military uniform and decorations.
“Friends and family, you know I have lived a long time and I have come a long way [...] There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light the fire in you.”
In 1973, she very fretfully signed up to try again and perform a concert at Carnegie Hall, no less. But by this time mentalities had evolved and she was treated to a standing ovation before she even sang one note.
Twenty thousand people attended her funeral. The French government honored her with a twenty-one gun salute.
Unsurprisingly, the NAACP declared May 20 Josephine Baker Day.