Legendary Jazz Age performer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker made history today as the first Black woman to enter France’s hallowed Panthéon. Baker is also only the sixth woman to be honored in such a way.
A ceremony was held this evening, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, who called the late Baker a “war hero, fighter, dancer, singer” who was “firstly defending humans. American and French.”
This was a major event in France today as the Missouri-born France transplant’s coffin, containing handfuls of earth from four places she lived, was carried into her tomb in a symbolic laying to rest (her body will remain in Monaco at her family’s request). Interment in the Panthéon’s crypt requires a parliamentary act and the designation of national hero. Among those buried in the monument are Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, Marie Curie and Simone Veil.
Baker was born in Missouri in 1906, starting her career at 15 when she appeared on stage in several New York shows. At 19, she moved to France, which would become her adopted home country.
There, she almost immediately found success as one of Europe’s most popular and highest-paid performers. Early on, she was renowned as a dancer, and was among the most celebrated performers to headline the revues of the Folies Bergères in Paris. Baker sang professionally for the first time in 1930, and several years later landed film roles as a singer in Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam.
Baker worked for the French Resistance during World War II, and during the 1950s and 60s devoted herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States. She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the U.S. and had an active role in the civil rights movement. She was a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, and in 1968, she was offered unofficial leadership in the movement in the U.S. by Coretta Scott King, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but declined the offer out of concern for the welfare of her children. Just two years after making a comeback to the stage, Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975, and was buried with military honors.
Decades later, Baker’s life and work has continued to influence top entertainment figures such as Beyoncé, who has portrayed her on various occasions. Baker also was portrayed by Diana Ross on Broadway and television in An Evening With Diana Ross, by Karine Plantadit; in the biopic Frida and by Cush Jumbo in her debut play Josephine and I. In HBO’s 1991 biopic, The Josephine Baker Story, Baker was played by Lynn Whitfield, who won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special, becoming the first Black actress to win the category.
Baker was recently discovered by a new generation through HBO’s very influential 2020 series Lovecraft Country, which featured the entertainer, played by Carra Patterson. Also last year, Studiocanal, CPB Films and Leyland Films announced that they are developing an English-language drama series about Baker.
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