When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away. Eventually I ran far away. It was to a place called France. Many of you have been there, and many have not. But I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen, in that country I never feared. It was like a fairyland place…Now I know that all you children don’t know who Josephine Baker is, but you ask Grandma and Grandpa and they will tell you. You know what they will say. “Why, she was a devil.”
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. – March on Washington, 1963
On April 12, 1975, Josephine Baker died of a stroke in Paris, France. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, she later took the name Baker from her stepfather. Surviving the 1917 riots in East St. Louis, Illinois, where the family was living, she ran away a few years later at the age of thirteen and began dancing in vaudeville and on Broadway.
In 1925, Baker went to Paris, where, after the jazz revue La Revue Nègre failed, her comic ability and jazz dancing drew attention of the director of the Folies Bergère. In the same year, she debuted in Paris and after a while was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Despite her popularity in France, Baker never achieved the same level of success in the United States. Baker was notorious in her day for her body-revealing costumes, but she also broke color lines, becoming the first African-American woman to star in a movie and the first to integrate a concert hall in the U.S.
In 1937, she returned to Paris and became a French citizen. During World War II, Baker volunteered to spy for France and provided significant assistance to the French Resistance. In recognition of her efforts, Baker was the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor, the Croix de Guerre. Although based in France, Baker was supportive of the Civil Rights Movement. When in the United States, she refused to perform for segregated audiences and she spoke at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The Akosua Report: Facts on The African Diaspora, is written by Akosua Lowery. Follow her on Twitter @AkosuaLowery.