Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis, Missouri to her mother Carrie, a woman who herself was adopted by former slaves of African and Native American descent. We don’t know that much about Josephine’s father because her mother took the secret literally to her grave, becoming a painful mystery to Josephine and a puzzle that her biographers could not solve. Medical records indicate that Josephine’s father was white, and biographers confirm that her mother worked for a German family in St. Louis around the time she gave birth to Josephine.
Regardless, Josephine lived out her early days in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood of St. Louis, a low-income setting consisting primarily of rooming houses, brothels, and a lack of indoor plumbing. Any formal education stopped at fifth grade, and at 8 years old she began working as a live-in domestic for white families. One woman even burned Josephine’s hands after she put too much soap in the laundry.
At thirteen, she became a waitress living on the street in the slums, sleeping in cardboard shelters, scavenging for food in garbage cans, dancing on the street corners to make a living. She met a man named Willie Wells, and married him. They divorced less than a year later, and by age 15 Josephine married another man named Willie Baker, divorced him four years later after finding success in her dancing troupe, but she kept his name.
After finding success with her vaudeville troupe in St. Louis, she headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance and I firmly believe we witness cosmic alignment and the fruition of fate at this moment. She was performing successfully in Vaudeville shows, described as a theatrical genre of variety entertainment at the time, and she was soon billed as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.”
Despite these accolades, Josephine was often faced with rejection simply due to her race. She describes feeling suffocated and afraid to be black in America, and she ultimately moved to Paris. It was there that the Josephine Baker we know today was invented.
During her shows in Paris she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, named Chiquita, adorned with a diamond collar. She became the most successful American entertainer working in France and Ernest Hemingway even called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” She was a critical hit and an entertainment masterpiece.
And yet, despite her success in Europe, she never gained the equivalent admiration in America. It truly hurts my heart and soul to say this, but at one-point Time Magazine referred to her as a “Negro wench…whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside of Paris.”
But that didn’t stop her. She soon gave up her citizenship in America and became a legal citizen in France.
During World War II, Josephine was recruited by the French military intelligence as an honorable correspondent, collecting information about German troop locations from officials she met at parties. She wrote notes about airfields, harbors, and German troop concentrations with invisible ink on her sheet music. She was eventually named to the National Order of the Legion of Honor by Charles De Gaulle, the highest French order of merit for military and civil service.
She was named NAACP’s Woman of the Year in 1951 and she returned to the United States for a national tour. Despite these incredible accomplishments and international success, she was still refused reservations at 36 hotels because of racial discrimination, was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, and was refused service at the Stork Club in Manhattan.
And yes, despite this terrible and unforgivable treatment, the NAACP declared May 20, 1951 as Josephine Baker Day. She spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr as the only official female speaker. And, after King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King requested for Josephine to lead the Civil Rights Movement, to which she declined.
Josephine wanted to prove that, in her own words, “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” She created the Rainbow Tribe, twelve adopted children from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities consisting of ten boys and two girls.
Eventually, Josephine fell into hard financial trouble but I don’t want to get into that here. That’s not how she would want to be remembered, that’s not who she was. We all fall into financial difficulties at times, right?
On April 8, 1975 Josephine was back on stage at the Bobino in Paris to celebrate her 50 years in show business. The audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, and it was financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jackie O.
She received rave, glowing reviews for her performance.
Four days later, she was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. Found lying in her bed surrounded by newspapers exalting her performance, she was rushed to the hospital.
Josephine died on April 12, 1975, four days after giving one last stellar performance to the world.