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Josephine Baker

1905 - 1975

New Page 1 Josephine Baker, immensely popular in Paris as sensuous yet comical dancer in the 1920's, was unfortunately not accepted in racist America until 1973. Famous for her almost non-existent clothing and uninhibited dances, Josephine was known as "Black Venus", "Creole Goddess" and "Black Pearl". Men bestowed on her a myriad of gifts such as diamonds and cars, and she supposedly had 1,500 marriage proposals. She continued her successful stage career for fifty years until her death in 1975.

Coming from humble beginnings, Josephine was born as Freda Josephine Carson in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3, 1906 to Carrie McDonald, a washerwoman, and Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer. Eddie soon abandoned them and Carrie married Arthur Martin, who was kind but usually without work.

The young Josephine found work cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families. When she was thirteen she became a waitress, met a man there named Willie Wells whom she married. She left him when the relationship went bad and later married three more times first to Willie Baker in 1921 (she kept his name), Frenchman Jean Lion in 1937 (whom she became a French citizen through), and French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947 who helped to raise her twelve adopted children.

She began her stage career touring with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers in 1919, performing in skits. She worked as a dresser for the Dixie Steppers learning the dance routines, so when they needed an extra dancer she got her chance. Her added comical touches made her a box-office draw.

She found stage success at The Plantation Club in New York City, but when she traveled to Paris for "La Revue Negre" they went crazy for her. Her stage success brought money which she spent on clothes, jewelry and pets. At one time she enjoyed owning a leopard, a chimpanzee, a pig, a snake, a goat, a parrot, parakeets, fish, three cats and seven dogs.

By 1927 Josephine was one of the most photographed women in the world, along with personalities like Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford. Her earnings set her above any other entertainer in Europe at the time. She was the star in two early movies, Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam. Although her celebrity status was unrivaled in Europe, when she returned to the United States in 1936 to star in the Ziegfield Follies the public rejected her due to her color.

Returning to France, Josephine participated in World War II as a performer for the soldiers as well as doing undercover work for the French Resistance. She smuggled secret messages written in invisible on her music. She also served as a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. The France government awarded her with the Medal of Resistance and was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

Visiting the U.S. again in the 1950's, Josephine continued to fight against racism. The Stork Club rejected her as a customer, she began a media battle with pro-segregationist Walter Winchell as her opponent. The NAACP named May 20 as Josephine Baker Day to honor her efforts.

During this time Josephine began adopting children of different races and ethnicities and called them affectionately her "Rainbow Tribe". She lived and promoted her belief that people of various ethnicities can live together harmoniously. She continued to visit the U.S. and met an artist Robert Brady whom she became involved with. Divorced from her fourth husband, Josephine and Robert decided to say wedding vows in an empty church in Acapulco, Mexico to cement their platonic friendship in 1973. Strides had been made in black acceptance, and also in 1973 Josephine performed at New York's Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation even before she had begun.

On April 8, 1975 Josephine performed at the Bobino Theater in Paris before people like Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren. Even though she was 68 years, she thrilled the audiences with a medley of her routines from her 50 year career. On April 12, only days later Josephine died from a cerebral hemorrhage.

by Jane Y. Harter

Josephine Baker
Text Courtesy of the FBI - Freedom of Information Act

The famous nightclub entertainer was thought to be involved in communist activities, however, no evidence was ever found that proved otherwise.

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