History Maker

The French Croix De Guerre Medal

Josephine Baker Commemoration Story

On Tuesday November 30, 2021, Josephine Baker received one of France’s highest honor. Baker was born in St. Louis in 1906, became an international entertainer in Paris in the 1920s, and became a figure of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation during World Warfare II. Josephine Baker is the first Black woman to be honored in the Parisian Panthéon.

The Panthéon in Paris, France where Josephine Baker will be re-interred on November 30, 2021.

In 1939, the head of France’s military intelligence service recruited France’s most famous woman and highest-paid entertainer, Josephine Baker, to use her fame as a cover to spy for the French Resistance against the Nazis. 

Baker agreed to spy saying, “Of course I wanted to do all I could to aid France, my adopted country, but an overriding consideration, the thing that drove me as strongly as did patriotism, was my violent hatred of discrimination in any form.”

Baker used her charm, beauty and stardom to befriend admiring diplomats at embassy and diplomatic parties. She gathered intelligence by writing notes of what she overheard on the palms of her hand and on her arms under her sleeves. “Oh, nobody would think I’m a spy,” Baker said with a laugh.

As the Nazis closed in on Paris in early June 1940,  Baker loaded her possessions, including a gold piano, into vans and departed for a chateau 300 miles to the southwest. There, Baker hid refugees and French Resistance members.

Josephine Baker (right) pictured in her military uniform as a member of the Fighting French Women’s Corps

In November 1940, Baker worked to smuggle documents to essential officials in London. Under the guise of embarking on a South American tour, the entertainer hid secret photographs under her dress and carried along sheet music with information about German troop movements in France written in invisible ink.

In Morocco, North Africa she worked with the French Resistance network and used her connections to secure passports for Jews fleeing the Nazis in Eastern Europe.

Crowds of French patriots line the Champs Elysees to view General Leclerc’s 2nd Armored Division passing through the Arc du Triomphe, after Paris was liberated on August 26, 1944.

Following the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Baker proudly wore her military uniform as a member of the Fighting French Women’s Corps in the parade along the Champs-Élysées where throngs of Parisians tossed her flowers into her lap.

August 19, 1961, Josephine Baker Receives the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor

The details of Baker’s espionage work were revealed to the worldin 1961 when she received two of France’s highest military honors, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor. At the ceremony, a teary-eyed Baker told her fellow countrymen, “I am proud to be French because this is the only place in the world where I can realize my dream.”

Josephine Baker, March on Washington, August, 28, 1963  

Baker donned her uniform once again in 1963, at the age of 57, to speak at the March on Washington.  She and Daisy Bates were the only women to address the 250,000 gathered.  Baker spoke just before Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” oration.

Baker said, “Americans, the eyes of the world are upon you. How can you expect the world to believe in you and respect your preaching of democracy when you yourself treat your colored brothers as you do?”

Josephine Baker on stage at Kiel Auditorium on Feb. 3, 1952, the first time she had performed in her home town of St. Louis since becoming internationally famous.

In her speech at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis in 1952 on “the Josephine Baker Home Coming Day” Baker said,  “I ran away from St. Louis, and then I ran away from the United States of America, because of that terror of discrimination…. As a little girl, I remember the horror of the East St. Louis ‘race riot’ I wanted to find freedom of soul and spirit. I wanted to do things to help freedom come to my people.”

As we celebrate Josephine Baker in 2021, we seek to answer the question:, “What does Josephine Baker’s legacy mean to us today?”