Josephine Baker was much more than a showgirl. She actively worked to make the world a better, more accepting place with her civil rights activism and provided invaluable information to the French during World War II.
This amazing woman came from modest beginnings. She was born into poverty in 1906 and started working as a servant at age eight. At 13, she joined a traveling vaudeville troupe and by 19 was booked at high-profile clubs, billed as the “highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.”
In 1939 after France declared war on Germany, Baker breached out from the entertaining realm. She started off as a Red Cross nurse and was later recruited by French military intelligence. Baker would meet German officials at parties to gather information and write notes in invisible ink on her sheet music. She used her fame to reach high-profile officers and hid refugees and weapons at her estate.
Knowing that her celebrity status meant customs officials would be too busy fawning to search her closely, Baker was able to easily smuggle information in and out of countries, on multiple occasions pinning photos of German military maneuvers to her underwear. She was appointed a sub lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force and was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance by the French military.
Baker was a vocal advocate for civil rights during the course of her life and career, insisting on nondiscrimination in her contracts and refusing to perform for segregated audiences, leading to some clubs eventually accepting her demands and integrating. She adopted and raised a group of children of different ethnicities and religions that she called her “Rainbow Tribe.” She wrote articles on segregation in the U.S. after being refused reservations at 36 hotels because of her race. She was presented with a NAACP life membership for her work with the organization and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr.—making her the only female speaker there.
Though Baker herself never used the term, it is most commonly agreed that Baker was bisexual, due to her numerous affairs with women, the most notable being the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and marriage to a man.
Baker’s story has an almost mythical air; her pure bravery and audacity shocked and amazed people at the time, and continues to do so today. Her friend Ernest Hemingway described her as “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw, or ever will.”
Caroline Fritz is a third-year English major with a minor in linguistics. She can be reached at CF853302@wcupa.edu.