Josephine Baker, born in San Francisco, was an exotic black woman who loved to dance and make people laugh. She wore what was called “barely there” dresses when she performed and her dancing was uninhibited. Because of racism in the United States during the 20’s, she had a hard time to get any kind of work, especially on stage. When caring for children of rich white people she was cautioned, “Be sure not to kiss the babies.” She was refused a part in a stage show because she was a skinny black woman.
Because of this racism, she moved to France and took the stage by storm. Patrons loved her sensual dance routines mixed with humor. She was inundated with expensive gifts and numerous proposals of marriage. She maintained her career for fifty years until she died in 1975. Sadly, it wasn’t until 1973 that she really caught on in the United States.
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In 1936 she Josephine Baker performed in the Ziegfeld Follies, and it was a humiliating experience. American audiences weren’t ready to accept a powerful sophisticated black woman. Newspapers often reviled her. It would be a long time before she would try American audiences again.
In the 50’s and 60’s she returned to the United States determined to fight racism. When she was refused service at the Stork Club it fueled her drive for integration, taking on columnist Walter Winchell as an opponent.
Finally in 1973 during a trip to the United States, she agreed to appear in Carnegie Hall. Recalling her previous experience, she was reluctant to try again. But attitudes had changed and she received a standing ovation when she walked onto the stage. This acceptance touched her deeply.
About this time she started adopting children with different ethnic and religious backgrounds. She called them the Rainbow Tribe, all the colors of the rainbow. She wanted people to know that children of different backgrounds could be brothers – one family. They often traveled with her, and it was evident that they were a happy family.
She had just divorced from her fourth husband, and yearned for a relationship that was purely platonic. She met a man that was looking for the same thing. They walked into an empty church and exchanged vows. They were never legally married, but it was a bond that lasted for the rest of her life.
On April 8, 1975 she was 68 but going strong. She opened in Paris, with many celebrities in attendance. She did parts of routines that she had performed in her fifty- year career. The reviews were among the best she’d received, and it was a fitting end to an illustrious career. A few days later she went into a coma and died.
More than 20,000 people lined the streets to pay their respects. The French government ordered a 21-gun salute that made her the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors. Today her memory lives on.
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