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American Legend Is First Black Woman Given French Honor

Josephine Baker makes history nearly 50 years after her death
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 28, 2021 9:30 AM CST
Josephine Baker First Black Woman Given French Honor
A passport application by Josephine Baker is pictured in an archive room of the Vincennes castle, in Vincennes, east of Paris, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. France is inducting Josephine Baker – Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French Resistance fighter and civil rights leader – into its Pantheon, the first Black...   (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

(Newser) – France is inducting Josephine Baker—Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French World War II spy and civil rights activist—into its Pantheon, the first Black woman honored in the final resting place of France’s most revered luminaries. On Tuesday, a coffin carrying soils from the US, France and Monaco—places where Baker made her mark—will be deposited inside the domed Pantheon monument overlooking the Left Bank of Paris, per the AP. Her body will stay in Monaco, at the request of her family. French President Emmanuel Macron decided on her entry into the Pantheon, responding to a petition. In addition to honoring an exceptional figure in French history, the move is meant to send a message against racism and celebrate US-French connections.

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Baker was born in 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri. At 19, having already divorced twice, had relationships with men and women, and started a performing career, she moved to France following a job opportunity. She met immediate success on the Theatre des Champs-Elysees stage, where she appeared topless and wearing a famed banana belt. Her show, embodying the colonial time’s racist stereotypes about African women, caused both condemnation and celebration. Baker's career took a more serious turn after that, as she learned to speak five languages and toured internationally. She became a French citizen after her marriage in 1937 to industrialist Jean Lion, a Jewish man who later suffered from anti-Semitic laws of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

In September 1939, as France and Britain declared war against Nazi Germany, Baker got in touch with the head of the French counterintelligence services. She started working as an informant, traveling, getting close to officials and sharing information hidden on her music sheets, according to French military archives. Researcher and historian Géraud Létang said Baker lived "a double life between, on the one side, the music hall artist, and on the other side, another secret life, later becoming completely illegal, of intelligence agent." After the war, she fought against American segregation during a 1951 performance tour of the US, causing her to be targeted by the FBI, labeled a communist and banned from her homeland for a decade. The ban was lifted in 1963, and she returned to be the only woman to speak before MLK's famed “I Have a Dream” speech.
(Read more Josephine Baker stories.)

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