Sept. 22, 1927
St. Louis native Josephine Baker became the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture. She played the lead role of Papitou in the French silent film, “Siren of the Tropics,” who, like Baker, found her true calling as a performer.
The film’s success led to other starring roles, an autobiography, the creation of a doll in her likeness and even a toothpaste commercial.
At age 11, Baker had witnessed racial violence in East St. Louis, “watching the glow of the burning of Negro homes lighting the sky. We children stood huddled together in bewilderment … frightened to death with the screams of the Negro families running across this bridge with nothing but what they had on their backs as their worldly belongings.”
After working in some choruses on Broadway, she traveled to Paris, where she became the most successful American entertainer working in France. Picasso drew paintings of her, author Ernest Hemingway spent hours talking to her in Paris bars. During World War II, she aided the French Resistance by socializing with the Germans while secretly gathering information that she transmitted to England, sometimes writing the information in invisible ink on her sheet music.
After the war, she received the Croix de Guerre, the medal of the Légion d’honneur and other medals. When she returned to the U.S., she refused to appear before segregated audiences, despite being offered up to $10,000 ($110,000 in today’s money) to perform. She fought to prevent Willie McGee’s execution in Mississippi, and in 1951, the NAACP honored her with a “Josephine Baker Day” and a parade of 100,000 in Harlem.
In 1963, she became the only official female speaker at the March on Washington. She adopted a dozen children in her lifetime from countries around the globe. She called her children the “Rainbow Tribe.” She played Carnegie Hall in 1973, the Royal Variety Performance in 1974 and a revue celebrating her 50 years in show business in 1975.
After rave reviews, she died unexpectedly after experiencing a cerebral hemorrhage. More than 20,000 attended her funeral, where she received full French military honors.
Diana Ross portrayed Baker in her Tony-winning Broadway show, an HBO movie told her life (for which Lynn Whitfield became the first Black actress to win an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special), and she was depicted in the TV series, “Lovecraft Country.”
In 2021, Baker was inducted into the Panthéon in Paris — the first Black woman to receive this honor.
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