Joséphine Baker: American activist to enter French Panthéon

American-born French performer Joséphine Baker will be entered into Paris' Panthéon of national heroes, making her the first black woman to receive the honor. Her induction into the Panthéon recognizes her contribution to the performing arts and her courage in actively resisting Nazi Germany during the war. This honor will be added to Josephine Baker’s existing government recognitions including the Légion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honors which she was awarded following the second world war. The Panthéon is a burial place for celebrated French icons such as scientist Marie Curie and writer Victor Hugo. Baker will be just the sixth woman to join some 80 national heroes. So just who was this amazing American woman that took France by storm in the Roaring Twenties of the early 20th century?

Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1906, Baker rose to international stardom in the 1920s and 30s after moving to France to flee American segregation and pursue a career in showbusiness. Baker enjoyed phenomenal success on the French stage, wowing audiences with her dance and singing performances in Paris. But it was her war-time work for the resistance that cemented her status in France, where she became a citizen after her marriage to French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. Baker used her celebrity connections to gather information on German troop movements which she passed on, scribbled on musical scores. In 1943, at a benefit performance for the Free French forces in Algiers, she met with Charles de Gaulle, who presented her with a tiny gold Cross of Lorraine, symbol of the Free French. Though Baker, by then, had amassed more than a few beautiful jewels, this simple cross became her most prized possession.

Throughout her life, Baker was an outspoken anti-racism activist and also had a role in the civil rights movement in the US. In 1963, she took part in the March on Washington alongside civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, when he delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech. During Baker's work with the Civil Rights Movement, she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as "The Rainbow Tribe." Baker wanted to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers. She raised all twelve of her children with different religions to further her model for the world, including two children from Algeria one Muslim and the other Catholic. Upon her death in 1975, Baker became the first – and only – American woman to receive full French military honors at her burial, complete with an honor guard and gun salutes.


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