World renowned American-born French entertainer, World War 11 Spy, and activist Josephine Baker is set to become the first Black woman buried in the one of Paris’ most illustrious burial site, Panthéon monument.
The legendary entertainer who broke racial barriers to achieve mainstream stardom as well as was also known for her active activism, working for the French Resistance during World War II, and during the 1950s and ’60s, devoting herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States, refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences will become the first Black woman and sixth woman to receive one of France highest honours.
Baker’s remains which have been in Monaco, since her death in 1975 will be transferred to Paris’ Panthéon on Nov. 30, 2021.
She will rest amongst prominent women – white, including scientist Marie Curie, French Resistance fighter Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, ethnologist Germaine Tillion and feminist Simone Veil. Sophie Berthelot is also buried in the Panthéon, though she was included at the request of her husband and chemist Marcellin Berthelot.
A world-famous entertainer, committed civil rights advocate and key player in the French Resistance against Nazi Germany during World War II, Baker represents “the embodiment of the French spirit,” says the Elysée Palace, official residence of French president Emmanuel Macron, in a statement.
On Aug. 22, an advisor to French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Baker’s remains would be moved to the Pantheon. The decision came after Macron learned of a Change.org petition led by writer Laurent Kupferman that had gained almost 40,000 signatures.
“Josephine Baker embodies the [French] Republic of possibilities,” Kupferman tells the Times. “How could a woman who came from a discriminated and very poor background achieve her destiny and become a world star? That was possible in France at a time when it was not in the United States.”
Baker, a vocal advocate for equality, became the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture, the French silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927).
She was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Medal of the Resistance) and a military rank (lieutenant of the Free French Air Force).
Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1906 and known for her “banana skirt” dances, Baker rose stardom in the 1930s after moving to France in 1925 to pursue a career in show biz. She notably performed to crowds at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and the Folies Bergère in Paris.
During World War II, Baker joined the French Resistance, collecting information from German officials and carrying said messages hidden in her clothing to England and other countries. Leveraging on her fame, she was able to travel without being searched.
Baker was also a Civil Rights activist in the United States and participated among the official speakers at the March on Washington in 1963. The march is where Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
She became a French citizen after her marriage to industrialist Jean Lion in 1937.