Missouri’s Civil Rights Stories: Josephine Baker – Entertainer, Spy and Activist

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Born into poverty in 1906 in St. Louis, Josephine Baker escaped segregation in the United States to reach international stardom as an entertainer and later used her voice to call for racial equality.

From a young age, Baker took odd jobs to help support her mother and siblings. When she was 13, she began performing in the St. Louis area and touring with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers. She moved to New York to pursue a dancing career in earnest and eventually made her way to Paris.

In 1925, she exploded onto the scene in La Revue Nègre, becoming a star on opening night. Her vibrant dancing and shocking costumes appealed to the French, who were obsessed with American jazz culture. Baker became one of the highest paid entertainers in Europe and went on to star in two movies in the early ’30s. She visited the United States, but despite her success in Europe, American audiences wouldn’t fully accept her, and reviewers were exceptionally cruel. She returned to France and moved her family from St. Louis with her.

When World War II broke out, Baker became a spy for the French Resistance. A French spy master recruited Baker because of her fame, believing she could charm secrets out of diplomats at embassy parties. After the Nazis invaded France, Baker continued to perform in Paris and helped smuggle documents to the Free French government in London.

Baker returned to the U.S. again in the ’50s and ’60s to support the civil rights movement. She joined Dr. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington and spoke just before he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 2021, Baker was inducted into the French Pantheon – the first Black woman to receive the honor.

Discover more about Baker and her extraordinary life at The Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis where her story is included in the permanent gallery.