Josephine Baker was an acclaimed entertainer and civil rights activist that used her fame to undertake clandestine Intelligence work during WWII.
1.0. Background: Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine MacDonald in St Louis Missouri, in 1906. Growing up in a poor household, she entered several marriages during her teenage years. Her second husband, William Howard Baker, gave her the surname she would keep.
She later moved to France in 1925 to pursue her career in entertainment. Here, she found incredible mainstream success. Through her acting, singing, and dancing performances, she was able to perform for many international audiences. She ultimately became the first black woman to star in a motion picture [source].
Josephine Baker became a French citizen through her marriage to her third husband Jean Lion in 1937. She then renounced her American citizenship. Whenever she would attempt to return to the US, she was met with staunch racism and segregation laws that would ultimately make her return to France. Here, audiences were far more liberal and accepting of her artistry.
2.0. Espionage Work
Baker approached French Intelligence Services at the start of World War II to offer herself for work. Due to her popularity across Europe, she was able to attend and perform at high-profile events. Under this cover, Baker would gather information and take clandestine photographs of enemy locations. She was able to conceal information within her music scores and scripts, which allowed her to pass this information back to Allied forces.
Josephine Baker also brought several spies from Allied forces into her troupe, allowing them to travel to Spain and Portugal with her undercover. This ultimately would be instrumental in tracking enemy movements and assisting Allied Forces’ strategizing.
Baker later trained as a pilot for the French Forces Libreas in Morocco. Here, she became second lieutenant in a female group in the Air Force. Within her role, she transported supplies for the Red Cross [source]
3.0. Civil Rights Activist
Josephine Baker was also a dedicated civil rights campaigner and activist. Whilst she had gained widespread acclaim for her work in Europe, she continued to receive resistance in her home country of the US. Segregation was still widely enforced, and many white audiences took issue with a woman of colour having a platform.
Although she had renounced her US Citizenship, Baker still saw the need to improve the social conditions in her home country through campaigning for civil rights. Despite such unimaginable adversity, Josephine Baker remained strong in her values. She refused to perform for segregated audiences and wrote numerous articles campaigning for the end of Jim Crow laws in the US. She joined many anti-racism and anti-xenophobia campaigning groups in their early days of existence. In 1963, Josephine Baker was the only woman to give a speech in the March on Washington, alongside Martin Luther King Junior.
4.0. Josephine Baker Legacy
Josephine Baker has a multifaceted legacy, remembered for her entertainment work and her wartime efforts. She passed away in 1975, although continues to receive accolades for her commitments. For her commitment to the war effort, she received the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
Baker entered the Pantheon in Paris in 2021. She is one of only six women, and the only woman of colour, to do so.
Josephine Baker was undoubtedly a pioneer of stage and screen. She was a smart woman who was able to use her fame to advance the French cause during WWII, undertaking incredibly risky clandestine intelligence work. As a result, she is enshrined in French history as a hero both for her war effort and in popular culture.