The incredible life of Josephine Baker

Published 9:38 am Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Dynamic, mesmerizing and compassion for others. These are the qualities I think of when Josephine Baker comes to mind. Let me tell you about her life. On June 3, 1906, Josephine was born Freda

Judy Moore

Josephine McDonald to Carrie McDonald and Eddie Carson in St. Louis, Missouri. Eddie was a vaudeville drummer who abandoned the family when Josephine was very young. Carrie worked as a washerwoman to support herself and her daughter. At age eight, Josephine worked as a servant girl in a wealthy home and a waitress in order to help out. Josephine dropped out of school and was married at age 13 to Willie Wells. Later, in 1921 at age 15, Josephine married Will Baker. Unfortunately, both marriages ended in divorce.

Josephine had a love of performing and sometimes danced on the streets for money. Subsequently, she got a job dancing for local vaudeville shows. In addition, she sang and acted. After performing with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers for a year, Josephine moved to New York where in 1923 she performed on Broadway in Shuffle Along which was the first successful black musical.

In 1925 that love of performing led her to move to Paris, France where she starred in La Revue Negre which was a hit. She became famous for her dancing in a skirt made of bananas in a show called La Folie du Jour.

Josephine achieved success in the theater and movies while living in France. After marrying Jean Lion, Baker became a French citizen. That love of France was evident in that during World War II she joined the French Resistance with the rank of sub lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force. For her work on behalf of the Allies Josephine received the French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) and the Rosette de la Resistance (French Resistance Medal). Her job was spying for the Resistance. As she was famous Josephine got invited to parties which enabled her to travel across Europe undetected. Josephine relayed secret messages about German troop locations and airfields using invisible ink on sheet music.

In 1936, Josephine returned to the United States to star in the Ziegfeld Follies but received poor reviews and returned to France. In the 1950s she again returned to the United States but this time got rave reviews and huge audiences came out to see her. During this time some clubs wanted Josephine to perform for segregated audiences, which she refused. Shocked by the level of racism in the United States Josephine spoke out against clubs and hotels that refused service to African-Americans. In 1963 Baker participated in the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Wearing her French Resistance uniform she spoke to 250,000 people about the freedom she had in France and her hope that the United States would experience the same. During this time she also became friends with Grace Kelly.

Eventually, Baker and her fourth husband Jo Bouillon adopted 12 children from various countries whom she called her “Rainbow Tribe.” Knowing firsthand the effects of abandonment and poverty she did not want any child to experience that pain. With her performing talents she acquired great wealth and bought a large French chateau calling it Les Milandes. In order to support her family Josephine continued performing. However, in 1969 she was unable to keep up with the costs and the bank foreclosed on the home. Even though her financial status was in jeopardy Josephine proved unstoppable. In 1975 she performed onstage before a sold-out audience in Paris with celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Diana Ross and Sophia Loren in attendance. It was a time that honored Josephine’s 50 years of performing. Shortly after April 12, 1975, Josephine died of a brain hemorrhage. At her funeral she was given a 21 gun salute with thousands of people in attendance to honor her.

Josephine, an accomplished performer, was known famously around the world for her talents but her life’s devotion was ensuring that all people have equal rights and a peaceful existence. She desired that all children, of all races, live in families with a cherished love and freedom from poverty. Josephine never gave up on her dreams to display her talents to the world or being a mother to her children and giving them a nurturing home.

Judy Moore, a tour guide at The Central High Museum can be reached at