Josephine Baker

Portrait of Josephine Baker
Portrait of Josephine Baker

Library of Congress

Arts and Activism

Many would not automatically assume that the arts and activism are often linked. Artists and performers combine the creative and emotional capacity of the medium, while also pushing and advocating for meaningful change in society. Josephine Baker was such an artist. One of the most acclaimed performers of the twentieth century, she dazzled audiences around the world and spoke out against discrimination, partnering with organizations like the NCNW to make a difference.

Early Life

Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald) was born on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was raised in a low-income family and began working when she turned 12. Married twice before the age of 16, she kept the last name of her second husband, William Howard Baker. One of her jobs was as a street performer, which introduced her to acting and dance. In 1923, she traveled to New York, landing work as a chorus dancer with a traveling production company. Baker’s time as an entertainer fostered a flair for the theatrics and comedy in her, leaving her unsatisfied with her usual roles as a background chorus dancer. She learned to have comedic and attention grabbing appeal to the audience by injecting humor into her dances, setting her apart from the other dancers. She worked in a series of successful musicals like “Shuffle Along” and “Chocolate Dandies'' until 1925.

In 1925, Baker moved to Paris, hoping for new opportunities abroad not offered in a racially segregated U.S. Her arrival in France coincided with the country’s growing obsession with American Jazz and art, seeking increasingly exotic and foreign entertainment. She quickly garnered the interest of Parisian audiences in erotic dance clubs, performing in skimpy and outrageous outfits, like a skirt made of Bananas. Being one of the only African Americans in Paris, she found France to be far more racially accepting than the U.S. and stayed, increasing her profile to become the most famous and highest paid American performer in France.
Josephine Baker speaks with Vivian Carter Mason and other NCNW members at a reception in the Boardroom at the Council House
Josephine Baker speaks with Vivian Carter Mason, Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, and other NCNW members at a reception in the Boardroom at the Council House


Using Her Voice

Her status as a Black French icon was cemented with the song “J’ai Deux Amours,” and the first major motion picture to star a Black woman, “Siren of the Tropics”. She made attempts to continue her successes in the U.S. but racial tensions and reactions repelled her, so she remained in France where she renounced her American citizenship becoming a French citizen in 1936. When France was occupied by the Germans that same year, she continued working as an entertainer while secretly aiding the French Resistance. She was awarded the Legion d'honneur by General Charles De Gaulle after the War.

Baker would return to the U.S. many times over her life, lending her voice and reputation to the Civil Rights Movement throughout the country. She spoke at rallies, protested, and agitated for desegregation in clubs and in public spaces. Her prolific activism also made her a celebrated activist in the U.S., with the NAACP naming May 20th “Josephine Baker Day'' in her honor. On July 2, 1952, Baker headlined a benefit concert for the NCNW at D.C.'s Armory, and came to the Council House to meet and spend time with the organization's leadership. In 1963, she was one of the few women to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. After his assasination, his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, asked Baker to take his place as leader of the Civil Right Movement. She declined, citing concern for her children.

Josephine Baker died on April 12, 1975 at the age of 68. She is remembered as a trailblazing Black entertainer, war hero, and civil rights crusader throughout the world.
Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee and Josephine Baker shake hands
Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee and Josephine Baker shake hands at Baker's Benefit Concert for the NCNW held at the D.C. Armory on July 2, 1952.


More Resources

Interested in learning more about Josephine Baker? Check the links out below!

Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War

Josephine Baker - Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Josephine Baker - National Women's History Museum

Last updated: April 13, 2024

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Contact Info

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Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
1318 Vermont Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20005



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