Josephine Baker, the first black woman to be honored in the French Pantheon

Josephine Baker, the first black woman to be honored in the French Pantheon

Paris FRANCE Enters Josephine Baker, a Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French World War II spy and civil rights activist in the Pantheon, the first black woman to be honored at the final resting place of France’s most revered star.

On Tuesday, a coffin carrying soil from the United States, France and Monaco – places where Baker left his mark – will be deposited inside the domed Pantheon monument overlooking Paris’ left bank. Her body will remain in Monaco at the request of her family.

French President Emmanuel Macron decided to enter her into the Pantheon, in response to a petition pressing for her to be “dedicated to the gods.” In addition to honoring an exceptional figure in French history, the move aims to send an anti-racist message and celebrate the American-French bond.

“It embodies, above all, women’s freedom,” Laurent Kupferman, author of the petition for the move, told The Associated Press.


Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. At the age of nineteen, having already broken up twice, having relationships with men and women, and starting her career, she moved to France after getting a job opportunity.

“I arrived in France in 1925, a liberated woman, taking her life in her own hands, in a country whose language she does not speak,” said Kupfermann.

She achieved instant success on the stage of the Champs Elysees, appearing topless and wearing the famous banana belt. Her show, embodying colonial-time racial stereotypes about African women, caused condemnation and celebration.

“It was this kind of fantasy: it’s not the black body of an American woman but the body of an African woman,” Champs-Elysees theater spokesman Auvilly Lachaux told The Associated Press. Which is why they asked Josephine to dance something ‘tribal’, ‘wild’ and ‘African’.

She became a French citizen after marrying in 1937 to industrialist Jean Lyon, a Jewish man who later suffered from the anti-Semitic laws of the collaborating Vichy regime.


In September 1939, when France and Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, Baker contacted the head of the French counterintelligence service. She began working as an informant, traveling, getting close to officials and exchanging information hidden on her sheet music.

Researcher and historian Jerrod Letang said that Becker lived “a double life between a music hall artist, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, another secret life, which later became completely illegal, of an intelligence agent.”

After France’s defeat in June 1940, she refused to play for the Nazis who occupied Paris and moved to southwestern France. She continued to work in the French Resistance, using her art performances as a cover for her espionage activities.

That year, she brought into her division several spies working for the Allies, allowing them to travel to Spain and Portugal.

“No one is shocked that she is with her manager, makeup artists and technicians… so she brings them with her, and the information is passed on,” said Letang. “It risks the death penalty or, at the very least, severe repression of the Vichy regime or the Nazi occupier.”


The following year, Becker was seriously ill, and left France for North Africa, where General Charles de Gaulle later arrived from London with the Free French. Baker collected intelligence for de Gaulle, including spying on the British and Americans – who did not fully trust him and did not share all the information.

She also raised funds, including from her personal funds. It is estimated that it brought in the equivalent of 10 million euros ($11.2 million) to support the French resistance.

In 1944, Becker joined a women’s group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army with the rank of second lieutenant. The group’s record refers notably to the 1944 incident off the coast of Corsica, when Senegalese soldiers from colonial forces fighting in the French Liberation Army helped Baker out of the sea. After her plane had to make an emergency landing, they brought “the sunken ship to the shores, on their big shoulders, and Josephine Baker at the front,” the log says.


Baker also organized concerts for soldiers and civilians near the battle zones. After defeating the Nazis, she went to Germany to sing for former prisoners and deportees liberated from the camps.

“Baker’s involvement in politics was individualistic and atypical,” said Benita Jules Rosette, a senior researcher on Baker’s life and professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

After the war, Baker became involved in anti-racist politics. She fought against American racial discrimination during a performance tour in the United States in 1951, which caused her to be targeted by the FBI, branded as a communist and banned from her home country for a decade. The ban was lifted by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and she reverted to being the only woman to speak in March in Washington, before Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Returning to France, she adopted 12 children from all over the world, and created the “Rainbow Tribe” to embody her model of “universal brotherhood”. She bought a castle and land in the southwestern French town of Milland, where she tried to build a city that embodies her values.


One of Baker’s sons, Brian Balloon Baker, said, “My mother saw the success of the Rainbow Tribe, because when we caused problems when we were kids, she never knew who did it because we never swayed each other, risking collective punishment.” AFP. “I heard her say to some friends ‘I’m crazy because I never knew who was causing the problems, but I’m happy and proud that my kids are standing together. “

Toward the end of her life, she ran into financial problems, was evicted and lost her possessions. She received support from Princess Grace of Monaco, who offered Baker a place to live with her and her children.

She rebuild her career but in 1975, four days after the clean opening of her comeback tour, she fell into a coma and died of a brain hemorrhage. She is buried in Monaco.

While Baker is held in high esteem in France, some Macron critics question why he chose an American-born figure to be the first black woman in the Pantheon, rather than someone who rises up against discrimination in France itself.


The Pantheon, built at the end of the 18th century, honors 72 men and five women, including Baker. There are two other black figures in the shrine: the Gaullist resister Felix Eboue and the famous writer Alexandre Dumas.

“These are people who have made a commitment, especially to others,” David Medec, director of the Pantheon, told The Associated Press. “It’s not just excellence in competence, it’s really a matter of being committed and being committed to others.”

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