African American Pioneers in 1968: Josephine Baker

7, October 2013
Josephine BakerJosephine Baker, no date. Missouri History Museum.

Josephine Baker is famous for being the first black woman to become an international star, but I think her story shows something deeper. Baker was a black woman who took control of her own destiny. Josephine Baker was born June 3, 1906, in St. Louis's Mill Creek Valley neighborhood, near Union Station. Her mother was a domestic worker, and by age eight, young Josephine began working in several houses, also as a domestic worker. Her wages helped to support her family, which consisted of her mother, stepfather, and three younger siblings. She suffered physical abuse, and the threat of sexual abuse, in the homes where she worked.

Even as a child, Baker found comfort in entertaining friends and family. She would perform "shows" in her home and charge either a safety or a straight pin as admission. She was a fan of the Dixie Steppers, an entertainment group of chorus girls who performed at the Booker T. Washington Theater in St. Louis. One day Baker boldly snuck backstage during a Dixie Steppers show and convinced the director to hire her. Her first performance with the group turned out to be unintentially comical. Baker, playing cupid, got stuck in midair, but the audience loved what they thought was a scripted moment. When the Dixie Steppers left St. Louis, 13-year-old Baker—knowing that if she stayed in St. Louis she would experience a life of poverty—decided to leave with them.

While the Dixie Steppers performed in the northeastern United States, Baker also had to work as a waitress to support herself. In 1924, Baker moved to Paris. After struggling for a year, Baker became an overnight sensation when she began performing routines in nothing but a feather skirt adorned with artificial bananas. The audience was captivated. Baker became a headliner in the show La Folie du Jour and went on to perform around the world. At last Baker had achieved stardom and control over her life in regard to facing racial discrimination.

Josephine Baker at March on Washington Josephine Baker wearing her medals from her service in the French Resistance during World War II, at the March on Washington in 1963. Photograph by Irving Williamson, 1963. Missouri History Museum.

Baker loved her life in Paris so much that she became a French citizen and even spied for France during World War II. In 1951, she refused to perform at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis because of its policy of not allowing integrated audiences. In 1952, Baker appeared at a rally organized by the NAACP for the desegregation of St. Louis schools. Although Baker lived in France, where she felt safe from racial discrimination, she still was an active advocate for racial equality. She wanted to impact other lives as well, and adopted 12 children from various parts of the world.

Baker found a way to control her life, rather than let racial discrimination dictate it. As she said in a speech she delivered during the March on Washington in 1963, “[she] took that rocky path, and [she] tried to smooth it out a little” because she did not want her successors to have to face the racial hardships she faced. I believe Baker smoothed that path out for the current generations. Her bold moves not only impacted her well-being, but the well-being of those who came after.

—Domonique Taylor, Community Education & Events intern