Black History Hero: Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker

Born to Carrie McDonald, a laundress, and Eddie Carson, a musician, Josephine Baker’s early life hinted at her future career. She first danced for the public on the streets of St. Louis, Missouri for nickels and dimes. Later, she became a chorus girl on the St. Louis stage. At age 15, she married Pullman porter William Howard Baker, but left him when she ran away from St. Louis at age 17, feeling there was too much racial discrimination in the city, and eventually made her way to Paris, France. Her first job in Paris was in “La revue negre”. Her next significant job was at the Folies Bergere, where she was a member of their all-black revue. It was there, in 1925, that she first performed her famous “banana dance”. She quickly became a favorite of the French, and her fame grew, but she had many ups and downs during her career. Although popular in France, during the McCarthy “Red Scare” era of the 1950s, she was falsely accused of being a Communist and informed that she was no longer welcome in the United States (in 1937 she had renounced her American citizenship, thoroughly disgusted by the blatant and official racism against blacks, and became a citizen of France).

In 1961, Josephine was awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award. In the late 1960s, she began having financial difficulties, and stopped performing in 1968.Grace Kelly, who by that time had married Prince Rainier of Monaco and was now known as Princess Grace of Monaco, offered her a home in Monaco when she learned of Josephine’s financial problems. At the request of Princess Grace, she performed at Monaco’s summer ball in 1974 and was a great success. That same year, she staged a week of performances in New York City and called the show “An Evening with Josephine Baker”. She had just begun a Paris revue celebrating her half-century on the stage, when on April 10, 1975, she was stricken and went into a coma. She died without regaining consciousness. Her funeral was held in Paris, and she was buried in Monaco.



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