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Josephine Baker, an African American French expatriate dancer and singer, was born on this date in 1906.
Baker was born Freda Josephine MacDonald in St. Louis. Her father was a drummer and her mother was a washerwoman. At age eight, Baker began working as a maid and by age 14, she had left home and separated from the first of five husbands. Her initial break into show business came when she was featured in “Shuffle Along,” Broadway's first Black musical, in 1921. She played the comic "end girl" in the chorus and wound up stealing the show. Four years later, she was offered the opportunity to go to Paris and perform in La Revue Nègre.
Her show-stopping finale, in which she danced the Charleston wearing nothing but a girdle of feathers, made her an overnight sensation. Similar stage and film roles across Europe soon followed. Baker's act was most notorious for its nudity, but its innovative techniques also introduced many popular African-American dance styles to European audiences. Christian Dior designed her clothing and her admirers included Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. In 1937, Baker legally became a French citizen.
During World War II, she served as an intelligence liaison and an ambulance driver for the French Resistance and was awarded the Medal of the Resistance and the Legion of Honor. Soon after the war, Baker toured the United States again, and this time she won respect and praise from African-Americans for her support of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1951, she refused to play to segregated audiences and, as a result, the NAACP named her its Most Outstanding Woman of the Year. She gave a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall for the NAACP, the SNCC, and CORE in 1963.
Baker never had biological children, but she adopted ten sons and two daughters of various races and nationalities. Baker eventually ran into debt, her health began to decline, and she suffered two heart attacks and a stroke. She continued to perform, and on stage, she was as glamorous as ever. the 50th anniversary of her arrival in Paris was marked in 1975 with a huge gala to celebrate both that anniversary and Josephine's opening night. Four days later Baker suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage while sleeping.
Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York