Life of legend Josephine Baker honored in Paris

Josephine Baker (1906–1975) found fame as a dancer, singer and film star. She was also a World War II hero and a civil rights activist.

On November 30, Baker became the first Black woman honored in France’s Panthéon. She is the first entertainer and only the sixth woman in the Panthéon.

“Her Pantheonization is a well-deserved recognition for this American-born icon, whose legacy and lessons of courage and resilience continue to inspire us,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a November 30 tweet.

The ceremony, which took place in Paris, honored Baker’s life and legacy with speeches, tributes and films of her performances.

France’s greatest honor

To be interred or commemorated in the Panthéon is to be remembered as one of France’s heroes. It can only happen through parliamentary action.

Honorees include the philosopher Voltaire and writers Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.

There are only two other Black honorees in the Panthéon: The Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas and scholar Félix Éboué, also a resistance fighter.

While Baker’s place in the Panthéon is marked with a cenotaph, five other women are interred there: French resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Holocaust survivor and politician Simone Veil, French chemist’s wife Sophie Berthelot, and Nobel Prize–winning chemist Marie Curie.

A star is born

Baker was born St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906. She began dancing professionally as a teenager in New York City. By 19, she’d crossed the ocean to start a career in Paris, where she found fame.

Josephine Baker lying on tiger rug (© Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Fashion icon Josephine Baker inspired leagues of French women in the 1920s to cut their hair short like hers. (© Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Baker became a headliner in famous venues, such as Les Folies Bergère. She is regarded among France’s most well-known entertainers.

Baker became a French citizen in 1937, only two years before the start of World War II. Baker used her fame to fight for the resistance, even smuggling covert messages across occupied territory and hiding Jewish refugees in her countryside estate.

In the 1960s, Baker supported the civil rights movement in the United States, notably standing behind Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. On tour in the United States, she refused to perform in front of segregated audiences — directly challenging Jim Crow, racial segregation enforced by laws and customs at the time.

Baker died in 1975, days after collapsing at the end of a performance. She was buried in Monaco, where her body remains today while a plaque on a cenotaph marks her presence in the Panthéon.

“I have two loves,” she sang in 1930. “My country and Paris.”

People standing behind fence looking at something (© Julien de Rosa/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the public watch Josephine Baker’s plaque enter the Panthéon on November 30. (© Julien de Rosa/AFP/Getty Images)