Josephine Baker: The Black artist, civil rights activist and spy honoured at France's Panthéon

ITV News Correspondent John Ray reports on the action-filled life of pioneering artist Josephine Baker

US-born Josephine Baker wore many hats — entertainer, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist.

On Tuesday, the pioneer posthumously added to her list of achievements when she was inducted into France’s Panthéon, becoming the first Black woman to receive the nation’s highest honour.

Baker’s voice resonated through the streets of Paris’ famed Left Bank as recordings from her extraordinary career kicked off an elaborate ceremony at the domed monument. Baker joined other French luminaries honoured at the site, including philosopher Voltaire, scientist Marie Curie and writer Victor Hugo.

Josephine Baker was inducted into France's Pantheon on Tuesday. Credit: AP

Military officers from the Air Force carried her cenotaph along a red carpet that stretched for four blocks of cobblestoned streets from the Luxembourg Gardens to the Panthéon.

Baker’s military medals lay atop the cenotaph, which was draped in the French tricolor flag and contained soil from her birthplace in Missouri, from France, and from her final resting place in Monaco. Her body stayed in Monaco at the request of her family.

Military officers from the Air Force carried her cenotaph along a red carpet to the Pantheon. Credit: AP

French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to “a war hero, fighter, dancer, singer; a Black woman defending Black people but first of all, a woman defending humankind. American and French. Josephine Baker fought so many battles with lightness, freedom, joy”.

Baker is not only praised for her world-renowned artistic career but also for her active role in the French Resistance during World War II, her actions as a civil rights activist and her humanist values, which she displayed through the adoption of her 12 children from all over the world. Nine of them attended Tuesday’s ceremony among the 2,000 guests.

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Who was Josephine Baker?

Born in St Louis, Missouri, Baker became a megastar in the 1930s, especially in France, where she moved in 1925 as she sought to flee racism and segregation in the United States.

Baker was among several prominent Black Americans, especially artists and writers, who found refuge in France after the two world wars, including famed writer and intellectual James Baldwin.

Artistic career

Soon after settling in France, Baker quickly became famous for her banana-skirt dance routines and wowed audiences at Paris theater halls. Her shows were controversial, Black French scholar Pap Ndiaye told AP, because many activists believed she was “the propaganda for colonisation, singing the song that the French wanted her to sing”.

Baker knew well about “the stereotypes that Black women had to face,” Mr Ndiaye said.

“She also distanced herself from these stereotypes with her facial expressions”.

Baker became a French citizen after her marriage to industrialist Jean Lion in 1937, a Jewish man who later suffered from anti-Semitic laws of the collaborationist Vichy regime. The same year, she settled in southwestern France, in the castle of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.

“Josephine Baker can be considered to be the first Black superstar. She’s like the Rihanna of the 1920s,” said Rosemary Phillips, a Barbados-born performer and co-owner of Baker’s park in southwestern France.

Baker quickly became famous for her banana-skirt dance routines and wowed audiences at Paris theater halls. Credit: AP

Role in the French resistance

In 1938, Baker joined what is today called LICRA, a prominent antiracist league.

The next year, as France and Britain declared war against Nazi Germany, Baker got in touch with the head of the French counterintelligence services. She started working as an informant, travelling, getting close to officials and sharing information hidden on her music sheets, according to French military archives.

Researcher and historian Géraud Létang said Baker lived “a double life between, on the one side, the music hall artist, and on the other side, another secret life, later becoming completely illegal, of intelligence agent”.

Josephine Baker poses in her dressing room at the Strand Theater in New York City on March 6, 1961.

After France’s defeat in June 1940, she refused to play for the Nazis who occupied Paris and moved to southwestern France. She continued to work for the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as a cover for her spying activities.

That year, she notably brought into her troupe several spies working for the Allies, allowing them to travel to Spain and Portugal. “She risked the death penalty or, at least, the harsh repression of the Vichy regime or of the Nazi occupant,” Mr Letang said.

The next year, seriously ill, Baker left France for North Africa, where she gathered intelligence for General Charles De Gaulle, including spying on the British and the Americans — who didn't fully trust him and didn't share all information.

In 1944, Baker became second-lieutenant in a female group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army of General Charles De Gaulle.

Baker adopted 12 children from all over the world, creating what she called a “rainbow tribe”. Credit: AP

Civil rights activism

After the war, Baker got involved in anti-racist politics. She fought against American segregation during a 1951 performance tour of the US, causing her to be targeted by the FBI, labelled a communist and banned from her homeland for a decade.

The ban was lifted by President John F Kennedy in 1963, and she returned to be the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, before Martin Luther King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.

Back in France, she adopted 12 children from all over the world, creating a “rainbow tribe” to embody her ideal of “universal fraternity”.

She purchased a castle and land in the southwestern French town of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, where she tried to build a city embodying her values.