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From Scantily Clad Dancer To World War II Spy, Josephine Baker Laughed In The Face Of Traditions

Updated August 26, 2019 50.8k views12 items

History shows women who impact the world sometimes become overshadowed by male figures who do the same things. Josephine Baker facts prove she affected the world in many ways. Though her life is a rags-to-riches story, she led a full, engaging existence - from espionage to activism - making her impact on the world amazing.

History's Renaissance women have a special place in memory for breaking free from societal expectations. After growing up under the Jim Crow laws of Missouri, Baker moved to Paris where those who witnessed her dancing reconsidered what women could do or become. She later turned her attention to America's inequality, returning to fight against segregation and the racism persisting since the Civil War. Long before Beyoncé and other Black female celebrities, there was Josephine Baker, confronting the world by living her life the way she wanted.

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  • Baker Broke Into French Film In The 1930s, But Didn't Receive The Same Acceptance In America

    Baker Broke Into French Film In The 1930s, But Didn't Receive The Same Acceptance In America
    Photo: Daan Noske, Nationaal Archief / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

    While living in France, French filmmakers cast her in several movies. She debuted in Siren of the Tropics in 1927, followed by roles as a singer in 1934's ZouZou, 1935's Princesse Tam Tam, and Fausse Alerte in 1940. Baker's cinematic success afforded her an estate in southwest France - she nicknamed the residence Les Milandes. She moved her family who still lived in St. Louis into the new mansion, paying for their relocation.

    Baker returned to New York in 1936 to appear in the Ziegfeld Follies live revue, performing a piece called "The Conga." She was a major star in Europe and hoped to expand on this success in America, possibly in Hollywood. Unfortunately, US audiences rejected her performance, especially one coming from a woman of color - reviews reflected this hostile, racially motivated attitude toward Baker. She felt devastated. She remarried upon returning to France, becoming a French citizen and giving up her American citizenship.

  • Baker Joined The French Military And Became A Spy During World War II

    Baker Joined The French Military And Became A Spy During World War II
    Photo: Jack de Nijs, Nationaal Archief / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

    When World War II broke out, Baker made an unconventional choice: she joined the French military. As part of the Women's Auxiliary of the French Air Force as a sub-lieutenant, she assisted the Red Cross and helped out at a homeless shelter for refugees near her home. Baker also lent her services as an entertainer to the French war effort, performing for troops stationed in the Middle East and Africa.

    However, Baker's involvement in the military made a big leap when she became a French spy. Since Baker traveled across Europe performing, she took the opportunity to obtain as much information about the enemy as she could. She remembered anything she overheard while performing, wrote the intel down on music sheets using invisible ink, and pinned photographic evidence to her underwear to transport it secretly.

    Baker's fame also helped her get invited to parties and events at European embassies, using the occasion to flirt and eavesdrop to learn information. Additionally, Baker helped set up a British intelligence liaison center in Casablanca, as well as a network assisting Jewish people in obtaining passports to escape Europe. After the war, the French government awarded her several medals for her bravery and hard work.

  • Baker Was The Only Official Female Speaker At The 1963 March On Washington

    Baker Was The Only Official Female Speaker At The 1963 March On Washington
    Photo: Eric Koch / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

    During the war, Baker realized how empowering and satisfying it felt to help others, vowing to help fight racism in America. In 1951, she returned to the US and toured the country, fighting injustice along the way. In New York, 36 different hotels turned her away due to her race.

    In Las Vegas, Baker discovered popular Black American stars like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald were not allowed to stay at the area's glamorous hotels. Baker kept fighting for equality, starting a war of words in the media with columnist Walter Winchell, a supporter of segregation, after New York's Stork Club denied her entry.

    The March on Washington on August 28, 1963, is most remembered for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, but Baker also made history on this day. The mass protest drew around 250,000 supporters of equality to the Lincoln Memorial, and Baker was the only woman with an official invitation to speak. Instead of her signature feathers and gowns, Baker wore her military uniform onstage, telling the crowd:

    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. And then, look out, 'cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.

  • Baker Became The First Performer To Desegregate Las Vegas

    Baker Became The First Performer To Desegregate Las Vegas
    Photo: Hugo van Gelderen, Nationaal Archief / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

    On her 1951 American tour, Baker confronted the country's racism and refused to perform in segregated venues. Club owners could either let all races in or find another performer. She held her ground while touring the heavily segregated Southern states. In Las Vegas, Baker sat down on the stage in protest after discovering the venue turned away Black ticket holders at the door. She became the first person to desegregate Las Vegas casinos, though the credit has historically gone to male performers.

    At the end of Baker's tour, a huge parade took place in Harlem, and around 100,000 people showed up. The NAACP recognized Baker by naming her Woman of the Year and declaring May 20 Josephine Baker Day.