Josephine Baker, a French-American singer, dancer, activist, and spy, has been granted the right to be laid to rest in France’s famed Panthéon. Baker is one of the only women to be buried in the monument to France’s most venerated—those such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marie Curie, and Voltaire—and she will be the first black woman to be interred there.
Born in 1906 in St. Louis as Freda Josephine McDonald, Baker lived her early years on the streets. She was picked up by a talent recruiter at the age of 19, who told her of an all-black revue in Paris where she could make a living for herself. She jumped at the opportunity, moved to Paris, and made her debut as a performer in France in 1925.
Baker quickly rose to fame as a dancer and singer, something that she never could have accomplished back in America despite her drive and ambition. Between dancing, singing, and starring in four movies, it is believed she became the wealthiest black woman alive.
“She could do things we would consider ahead of their time because she never thought she would fail,” Bennetta Jules-Rosette, author of Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image, told BBC. “As a black woman, had she stayed in the United States, she could not have accomplished what she did.”
Baker became a French citizen in 1937, a few years before the onset of World War II. As the war drew closer to French borders, Baker decided that she would do something to support the country she had found success and refuge in—she joined the French Resistance.
Using her status as a world-famous entertainer, Baker was able to deliver enemy intel to the Allies as she performed in the middle of enemy territory. She transcribed messages onto her sheet music in invisible ink, wrote information on her arms, pined notes to the inside of her undergarments.
“France made me what I am,” Baker told Jacques Abtey, head of French counter-military intelligence, when he asked her for her service. “I will be grateful forever. The people of Paris have given me everything… I am ready, captain, to give them my life.”
After the liberation of Paris and the end of the war, Baker was awarded the Cross of Lorraine. She was also given the Legion of Honor in 1961 for her services, the highest order of merit for military and civil action.
But Baker wasn’t through championing the rights of those who are beaten down. After visiting America several times during the 1950s and 1960s, she dedicated herself to the fight for civil rights. She made herself known as an activist as much as she was as a performer and spy, refusing to perform in segregated spaces, participating in marches, and giving speeches at civil rights events.
She even delivered a speech at the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 alongside Martin Luther King Jr. “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents,” Baker told the crowds. “…But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
The fight against racial injustice dominated the latter part of Baker’s life, though she also continued performing up until her death on April 12, 1975. Her legacy lives on today, and since 2013 her family has been campaigning for her induction to the Panthéon, an honor only the President can grant. It wasn’t until this past July and nearly 40,000 signatures on the petition that French President Emmanuel Macron approved Baker’s induction.
The induction ceremony is scheduled to take place on November 30. Her body will remain buried in Monaco, according to Claude Bouillon-Baker, one of her children, but she will be honored with a memorial and plaque.
“I am not a young woman now, friends,” Baker said in her speech at the March on Washington. “My life is behind me. There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you. So that you can carry on, and so that you can do those things that I have done. Then, when my fires have burned out, and I go where we all go someday, I can be happy.”
“Josephine Baker had many lives,” said Jules-Rosette. “She had the perfect combination of charisma, determination, performance, and humanity. She was a visionary, a trailblazer. From her early days to the day she died, she created a path for the rest of us to follow. And I, for one, am so glad she did.”