Josephine Baker, Her Life in World War II and Beyond.
In a continuation of our article on Josephine Baker, Performer today we explore Ms. Baker’s work in the military. She became an “honorable correspondent” for French Military Intelligence during World War II .
During the war, Josephine Baker served in a number of ways, including working for the Red Cross as an ambulance driver, as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and by entertaining French Troops as a performer, but she is best known for her intelligence work. Her celebrity status let her mingle with many high ranking enemy officials as well as a cover for traveling around Europe.
She wrote notes carrying vital military information on her music in invisible ink. She also pinned notes to the inside of her underwear, relying on her status as a celebrity to protect her from being strip searched (Josephine Baker 2013) For her efforts, the French General awarded her the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Résistance, and made her a member of the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
After the war, her war-time fame increased her popularity.
She was able to use her popularity to promote the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Her work during the war increased her popularity more than ever in France. It let her take on more serious roles and subjects. 1951, she was finally invited back to the United States. There she fought with the nightclub over its segregation policies, refusing to perform for segregated audiences. Eventually, she won the battle, resulting in a sold out run of performances at the nightclub before embarking on a hugely successful national tour.
Despite continuing to live in France as a French citizen, she became actively involved in the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s. In addition to her insistence on desegregating her audiences, she worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and spoke at the March on Washington led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In her speech, she said:
“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad”.
Because of her involvement in the movement, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, his wife Coretta Scott King offered Baker the unofficial leadership of the King’s civil right movement. Baker declined the honor, saying that her children needed her.
Josephine Baker adopted 12 children she referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.”
In 1947, she married another Frenchmen, Jo Bouillon in what would be the longest lasting of her marriages. Baker was never able to give birth to a child of her own. It was her husband Jo Bouillon who initially suggested that they adopt instead. In the end, Baker adopted 12 children of a variety of national, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. She called them “The Rainbow Tribe”.
While the choice to start adopting was personal, for Baker, the children eventually made a political point as well. Children of such diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds could be raised as brothers and sisters. Baker stated, “I will make every effort so that each shows the utmost respect for the opinions and beliefs of the other”. I want to show people of colour that not all whites are cruel and mean. I will prove that human beings can respect each other if given the chance.”
Baker opened the grounds of the castle the family lived in to the public so that people could see the family living in unity. Baker was open about this with the children.
“I adopted you because I cannot have children,” she began. “I united all of you,” Jarry [one of her children] recalled her saying, because “in the world they are always fighting between countries and races, coloured, white and black”. Going around the room, she told each child the reason for their adoption. She cited abandonment or, in Jarry’s case, the divorce of his parents. “That is why I want you to be a family,” she continued, turning them into stakeholders in her project. “We knew that we were brothers from different countries,” Jarry said. “[We] had the sense that we had to show the world that the union of races, religions, whatever, was possible”.
Baker’s Legacy in film and more.
After her death, Josephine Baker’s life has been commemorated in a number of ways. Place Joséphine Baker in Paris was named in her honor. She was inducted into the the Hall of Famous Missourians on 29 March 1995. Two of her sons, Jean-Claude and Jarry run the restaurant Chez Josephine on Theater Row in New York City. The castle where she had raised the children is now a museum. It is open to the public, with displays of memorabilia from her life, including her famous banana skirt and Legion of Honour medal.
Google even made an animated google doodle for her 111th birthday . She has also been depicted numerous times on film and on the stage. Most notably in HBO’s The Josephine Baker Story. It one five Emmy Awards. Lynn Whitefield became the first African-American actress to win Outstanding Lead Actress in Miniseries or Special. The movie also won three Golden Globes.