Breaking down Barriers
How Jazz Age mega-star Joesphine Baker put racism under the spotlight
“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”
This is a small excerpt of the speech Josephine Baker gave to 250,000 people at the historic March on Washington on 28 August 1963. The only woman to address the crowd that day and wearing her military uniform, Josephine’s words resonated with their fight for liberty, equality and dignity – a cause she had spent the last four decades fighting for in the face of adversity and controversy.
Josephine was a woman unlike any other. A trailblazer for African-americans, her name is synonymous with the Jazz Age that swept through the 1920s and 1930s.
As one of the best entertainers in Paris, she dazzled audiences with her stage performances at a time when African and European cultures merged to define an era of frivolity and razzmatazz, turning Josephine into a star.
This stardom was in stark contrast to
Josephine’s humble beginnings, which fuelled her crusade against racism. Born to stage performers in St Louis, Missouri, on 3 June 1906, Freda Josephine Mcdonald was thrown into a world of poverty, racism and discrimination. Living off meagre scraps of food, she worked as a waitress and as a live-in cleaner for white families – one of her mistresses beat her regularly and made her sleep in the basement.
By the time she was 15 years old, Josephine had dropped out of school and married twice, earning money by dancing steps that she had learnt in America’s urban black centres. Later in life, Josephine would reflect on her childhood and confess, “I danced to keep warm.”
Scouted for her dancing, she ran away to join a vaudeville troupe and got divorced again, although she kept her second husband’s surname ‘Baker’ for professional purposes.
Moving to New York City, Josephine attracted attention during the Harlem Renaissance, considered the rebirth of African-american arts. Initially rejected from the chorus lines for being “too skinny and too dark” a determined Josephine learnt the routines anyway in case another dancer fell ill. When the opportunity came, she joined the chorus lines and stole the shows with her comedic performances. Wearing caricatured blackface, she appeared in the Broadway productions Shuffle
Along and The Chocolate Dandies in 1921 and 1924 respectively. Catching the eye of a recruiter for an all-black dance troupe in France, Josephine
“Her seductive and funny dance moves entranced audiences who kept coming back for more”
left for Europe with an offer of $1,000 a month to join the Parisian stage. Arriving in the City of Lights, Josephine met other African-descended women celebrated for their erotic dances, a stark difference to the racial prejudice that she experienced in America.
Josephine’s big break came when she debuted in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champsélysées on 2 October 1925. Her seductive and funny dance moves entranced audiences who kept coming back for more, even after Josephine moved to performing at the Folies-bergère. However, when she performed the Danse Sauvage in her iconic banana skirt, Josephine cemented her celebrity status for good.
The Danse Sauvage was the epitome of unbridled sexuality, resonating with the sexual freedom of the Jazz Age. It was set in the African jungle and Josephine never shied away from her African heritage, instead choosing to firmly embrace it by bringing traditional black dances
such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom to Paris and incorporating African themes into her performances. Audiences loved Josephine’s work because her dances indulged the stereotype that black people were primitive, exotic and foolish.
She catered to this to propel her burgeoning career, pulling faces and crossing her eyes throughout her performances to make her dances goofy yet sexy. Her tactics worked because by the late 1920s, Josephine had become the highest-paid entertainer in Europe, touring the continent.
Josephine built a new life for herself in Paris, a place without the racial segregation of the Jim Crow laws, or abuse. When discussing her life in St Louis, Josephine commented, “It was one of the worst cities in America for racial discrimination… I have very bad memories of that time.” It is no wonder that Josephine fell in love with France, which offered her freedom and safety.
Her success was unprecedented for an Africanamerican woman at the time, with her popularity allowing her to move from the stage to the silver screen. In 1934, she became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture when she played the titular character Zouzou.
Just as captivating on-screen as she was on stage, women flocked to emulate Josephine’s style through clothing, makeup and her famous spit curls – she even released a hair pomade called Bakerfix and a skin darkening lotion called Bakerskin for her fans to buy.
Encouraged by her career in Europe, Josephine wanted to achieve fame in America. In 1936, she travelled to New York City to perform in the famous Ziegfeld Follies, her first performance in America since she had left for Paris. But Josephine was shattered when newspaper critics published scathing reviews that laughed and ridiculed her, topped off with a barrage of racism – one stinging critic derogatorily referred to her as “the negro wench”. Heartbroken, Josephine fled back to France and in 1937 she married French industrialist Jean Lion and began the process to become a French citizen, renouncing her US citizenship.
When WWII broke out two years later, Josephine wanted to help her adoptive country. In her own words, she stated that, “France made me what I am, they gave me their hearts. Surely I can give them my life.”
Putting her fame to good use she worked for the French Resistance, as her performances gave her the perfect cover to travel throughout Europe without suspicion. She attended glittering parties filled with Axis officials, charming them to gain information for the Resistance.
Of course, it is unlikely that charm alone would have persuaded the enemy to divulge their secrets. In fact, they supposedly trusted Josephine and
held a misguided belief that she was on their side, because of an Associated Press report from 1935, which stated Josephine supported Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. This declaration had stemmed from her hope that the invasion would bring an end to the Ethiopian empire, which still practised slavery.
Nonetheless, Josephine was firmly on the
Allies’ side. To pass on confidential information undetected, she wrote it in invisible ink on her music sheets or concealed information in her underwear – counting on her fame to prevent a strip search. She even accepted an honorary role as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the Free Free French Air Force and raised thousands of francs for the Free French Forces.
When Germany invaded France, Belgium and the Netherlands in 1940, refugees flooded into Paris and Josephine volunteered her help, visiting shelters and hiding Jewish refugees from the Nazis. She even housed her friends from the French Resistance in the château she rented at Les Milandes in the south of France, helping them to obtain visas.
In 1941, Josephine undertook a secret mission in the French Colonies located in North Africa. Under the guise that she had gone to recover from a bout of pneumonia, Josephine was actually there to establish a liaison and transmission centre with British intelligence. She also helped to develop a network that made Spanish Moroccan passports for Eastern European Jews, which allowed them to escape to South America.
Not forgetting the Allied troops who were risking their lives, Josephine travelled throughout the war entertaining them with morale-boosting performances for free. She partly conducted these trips hoping that after the war, the men would remember her efforts to cheer them up would stop them developing any racist notions.
After the war, Josephine became the first American woman to receive the Croix de Guerre and Rosette de la Résistance for her efforts, and was also awarded the Légion d’honneur.
As the ravages of the war finally came to an end, Josephine decided to make a change. No longer would she sit by and watch as racism continued to run rife in America, making her feel like an outcast in her birth country. Now married to her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, Josephine returned to America in 1948.
Immediately, she experienced the same bitter racism as before, with 36 hotels refusing to give the couple reservations when they arrived in New York City.
Though unsurprised, an appalled Josephine decided to investigate discrimination herself and travelled to the south in disguise, so that her status would not affect the way she was treated. Documenting her experiences in a French magazine, Josephine’s accounts of racism shocked readers across the pond.
Despite her popularity across Europe, Josephine struggled to find American venues that would allow her to perform. Instead, she chose to do a tour of Latin America between 1950 and 1951 that was a great success, most notably in Cuba. Josephine became so popular that clubs back in America were clamouring to sign her.
One of them, Copa City in Miami, was a game changer for Josephine. The owner, Ned Schuyler, wanted to sign Josephine but she refused, knowing that the audience would be segregated.
“To pass on confidential information undetected, she wrote it in invisible ink on her music sheets or concealed information to her underwear”
Desperate to get her aboard, Schuyler promised to desegregate his club and invite prominent Africanamericans to the show.
Josephine agreed and her show in Miami was a hit, particularly with African-american critics who praised her efforts towards desegregation.
Encouraged by her success in Miami, Josephine toured the States and stepped up her demands. She refused to perform in segregated venues and stayed in the best hotels, a stark contrast to her hotel experience just a couple of years earlier. Thanks to her efforts casinos across Las Vegas became desegregated. However, her efforts are not as widely known as those made by her male counterparts such as Martin Luther King or Sammy Davis Jr.
Josephine also encouraged white businessmen to hire African-americans and spoke out against the trial of the Trenton Six, six men accused of murdering a white man, visiting them in jail during their second trial in April 1951. A month later, Josephine paid for the funeral of Willie Mcgree, an African-american who had been executed for allegedly raping a white woman.
For her tireless efforts, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People named 20 May Josephine Baker Day in her honour. Celebrations were held in Harlem with 100,000 people taking part in a parade, in recognition of Josephine’s fight for equality.
However, circumstances changed when Josephine openly criticised the prestigious New York nightclub, the Stork Club, where she had been refused service during a dinner with friends. Outraged, Josephine filed charges against the Stork Club and called out journalist Walter Winchell, her one-time ally, for failing to come to her assistance even though he had been present at the time.
The lawsuit caused problems for Josephine. Angered, Winchell publicly attacked Josephine in his articles and accused her of being a communist – as a friend of Senator Joseph Mccarthy, Winchell embraced Mccarthyism and routinely condemned those he suspected of communism without sufficient evidence. Thanks in part to Winchell, the FBI started following Josephine and kept a file on her activities, while many venues refused to book her fearing that she had become too controversial.
The situation worsened when Josephine conducted another tour across Latin America in 1952, escaping from her problems in America. During her visit to Argentina, Josephine made statements denouncing the racism prevalent in America that were subsequently published across the world. The American government was horrified as Josephine’s popularity increased, with her words of discrimination resonating with many other races and ethnicities.
Josephine had gained exposure for her cause but Winchell used the tour against her. She visited Havana, Cuba, and was said to have partied with the communist Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl. Winchell used this as evidence for his accusations against Josephine, despite the fact that she had been distancing herself from the left side of politics for some time.
In response Josephine was briefly arrested and interrogated by Cuban police for being a suspected communist at the suggestion of the FBI.
She was released but a propaganda campaign led by the American government, persuading other countries to prevent her from performing, was successful and many of her contracts were subsequently cancelled.
Josephine’s politically charged speeches about racism were highlighting an issue that the American government wanted to keep buried.
America was locked in the Cold War against the USSR and denounced the communism of the latter, maintaining that democracy was the far better political system of the two.
Yet Josephine was announcing to the world that African-americans across the South were denied the right to the vote and the right to be heard by their government – pointing out the hypocrisy of her native land.
The international media spread stories of racial segregation and abuse in America as a result, which the Soviet Union quickly seized upon to use in its anti-america propaganda. Aside from Josephine, other prominent African-americans such as WEB Dubois and William Patterson had also spoken their mind. Trying to take control of the situation, the government revoked the passports of Dubois, Patterson and other key African-americans who openly criticised the United States.
However, they could not do the same to Josephine since she held a French passport.
Their successful propaganda campaign removed the platform that Josephine had carved out for herself and to ensure she could not return to the States with her outspoken comments, her US working visa was revoked. With no option left, Josephine returned to home to Paris and persevered with openly denouncing racism in the States across the pond.
Now in France, Josephine decided to take a different approach. Having previously suffered a number of miscarriages, Josephine had to have a hysterectomy during the war and never had biological children of her own. Hoping to show that different races could live together peacefully, between the early 1950s and the mid 1960s, she adopted 12 children from all over the world
Affectionately naming them her ‘rainbow tribe’, the family lived in her château at Les Milandes, which she had officially purchased in 1947.
Turning her home into a theme park, Josephine welcomed the public so that they could witness her family project. Before adopting her 12th child, she separated from Bouillon and they finalised their divorce in 1961.
After a decade away, Josephine returned to America to give her speech at the 1963 March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King.
When King was assassinated five years later his wife, Coretta Scott King, offered Josephine the unofficial leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. Josephine was tempted but she ultimately refused, scared that as the head of the movement her children would be in danger. Her fears were justified considering that the FBI was still gathering information on her, even though they had determined that she was not a communist.
By the mid-1960s, Josephine remained a renowned star but she suffered from serious financial difficulties. In June 1964, French actress Brigitte Bardot appealed on television for contributions to save Josephine’s home, which was on the brink of being repossessed. Unfortunately, Josephine and her children were eventually evicted from Les Milandes and the estate was sold, but she refused to leave. Remaining sat on the steps outside of her home, pictures of Josephine’s plight were plastered all over the world.
With her friend, Princess Grace of Monaco, helping her to get back on her feet, Josephine took up performing once again. Since the war, her days of performing in a banana skirt and indulging racial stereotypes had long gone. Now, Josephine graced her audiences by descending down long staircases in glamorous, sophisticated gowns that marked the transition of her lengthy career.
On 8 April 1975, Josephine held a performance in Paris to celebrate 50 years of her career and received a standing ovation with rave reviews to match. This was the last time she would star on the stage as just four days later, Josephine sadly passed away following a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 68. She was given a funeral in France with full military honours, with thousands of people turning out to pay their respects to the woman who dedicated her life to breaking down barriers, both on and off the stage.
Baker performs at the Folies-bergère music hall, circa 1925
A caricatured poster from 1925 advertising Josephine in the La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées
Josephine on stage at the Foliesbergère music hall around 1926
Josephine performing for British troops on leave
A publicity portrait of Josephine Baker in military uniform from 1944
The Eton Crop and spit curl hairstyle that Josephine wore became iconic
The entertainer and activist adopted children from all over the world
Protestors outside the Stork Club after Josephine was refused service
In her later performances, Josephine was known for descending the stairs in an eye-catching dress
Josephine had a menagerie of animals including her pet cheetah, Chiquita
Josephine with her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, outside the château in Les Milandes